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Gwynn Oak Park-Baltimore and Civil Rights

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I was interviewed today by Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper. This because of a Blog entry on my site that has me recalling my childhood thrills of my visits to Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Park. Below is the text of this blog post that America not forget its history, triumphs, and the personal pain of our cultural evolution.

Gwynn Oak and Hairspray

“You really have to go see that play, Pat. You look just like the lead character.” I nodded my head at my co-worker’s comment. He wasn’t the first person to point out to me that the female protagonist in the musical Hairspray, a chubby female wearing the ubiquitous bow in the center of a circle of bangs,- a style very popular during that era- resembled my own chubby middle-aged self. I’d long ago ditched the bow in the circle of bangs hairstyle but was still a chubby, pretty-faced female. As was Rikki Lake in the movie of the same name.

It’s an offhand comment made by my colleagues. They could not possibly know that I not only looked the part of the female lead in that musical, I really LIVED it. And it wasn’t such a pretty life.

In fact, the writer of that movie, Barry Levinson, is from my home town of Baltimore. He was writing about that city’s Gwynn Oak Park, once a darling of Baltimore, the town’s only city-based amusement park. Gwynn Oak Park was a hallmark of the civil rights era though many students today have likely never heard of the place. I remember it so well in that it was not only a place of endless hours of my childhood delight, it was also my first introduction to blatant bigotry.

Gwynn Oak Park was a segregated establishment. Colored persons were not allowed entrance.

“Tasha, Pierre and Jerold will be going to the Enchanted Forest,” I remember Sister Digna telling my second grade class.

My seven- year old eyes regarded the three students named. They were all colored. I wondered even then just why Tasha, Pierre and Jerold couldn’t go to Gwynn Oak with the rest of the class.

Every year the parochial schools of Baltimore rented Gwynn Oak park for a day. We were all given bright yellow badges to pin on our shirts. The badges allowed us entry on any rides in the park as many times as we could get on and off of them. For weeks leading up to the event I was filled with happy anticipation. I loved going on Gwynn Oak’s roller coaster. Those times when I’d been to the park with my family a ride on the roller coaster cost fifteen cents a turn. With the badge I could ride it over and over, not limited by the two dollars my Dad would give me for the entire day. The prior year, as a first grade student, I’d rode the roller coaster over twenty times! I remember laying in bed that night and feeling the thrill of the coaster’s first big drop by a thrilling dip in my stomach that came from my memory alone. Over and over I would think of the slow climb up the coaster’s big hill, then my stomach would react with the same sudden dip and pleasant thrill just as it had when I was riding it earlier that day. This even though I was laying in my own bed! To a second grader, a trip to Gwynn Oak park with unlimited rides was paradise.

That park’s roller coaster was nowhere near the height or drop of today’s monster coasters. But to an excited seven year old it was as sweet an anticipation as a child could dream.

I wondered why Tasha, Pierre and Jerold couldn’t come along. They were parochial school students just like me. What was the Enchanted Forest, I wondered. Why did the Enchanted Forest allow Tasha, Pierre and Jerold to enter when Gwynn Oak would not? Why did the nuns and priests of the parochial schools not rail at the Gwynn Oak management regarding their very un-Christian attitude towards persons of color? Didn’t the sisters teach us that Jesus loves everyone? Wouldn’t that include Tasha, Pierre and Jerold? Didn’t Jesus especially love the little children?

Could the lady on the right be Kaitlyn’s Grandmother?

“Patricia, just as soon as you let the colored in Gwynn Oak the place will go down hill,” my father patiently explained to me when I presented some of my childish questions to him. His response was probably a typical Baltimore native’s attitude of the time and was likely exactly why Gwynn Oak would not allow the colored. I wondered how Tasha, Pierre and Jerold would make the place go down hill any more than I would.

Gwynn Oak eventually became a nationwide focal point of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. This was when I was right about the age of the Hairspray protagonist. This was when I was old enough to understand the bigotry and hatred of people like my father. This was when I could not forgive the complacent hypocrisy of Baltimore’s Christian community.

Because Tasha, Piere and Jerold deserved the same gleeful anticipation of the upcoming trip, as well as the joy of re-living the thrill of the coaster’s drop in the following night’s dreams. Because there were many children such as myself who grew up not understanding it at first, and despising it later.

Though I was quite white, I would march with the blacks who protested segregation. Young and idealistic, I often couched my participation with an ideal that I was part of it all for Tasha, Pierre and Jerold. My father was often livid with me, badgering me about my stupidity deep into the night. Martin Luther King was my hero.

They were heady and changing times, those mid-sixties of the Civil Rights Revolution. Gwynn Oak eventually began admitting black patrons in response to public pressure. Gwynn Oak eventually died a business death. Urban amusement parks, tiny affairs with dated rides, were part of the past. Though my father righteously maintained that Gwynn Oak would still be around if they hadn’t began admitting blacks.

My story’s too lengthy and filled with vague innuendoes and the confused memories of a child. When my much younger colleagues tell me how much I resemble the female character in Hairspray I don’t have the heart to bend their ears about childhood bedtime thrills and happy anticipation. For sure I could never explain Tasha, Pierre and Jerold. To them it’s a happening and popular musical, simply all the rage.

I lived it. The experience helped form me and fashion my mindset.

And I am a far better person for having lived it than for merely resembling the lead female character.

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  • Russ Douglas

    For a kid growing up in Baltimore in the fifties, the best day of summer was when you got to go to Gwynn Oak Park. Each summer the employees of the Glenn L. Martin Company (now Martin Marietta) had a family day at the park and all the rides were free. I remember there was a miniature train that meandered through the picnic grove. There was a somewhat scary ride called the Caterpillar that raced in a circle, and in the middle of the ride a canvas canopy folded over the cars, plunging them into darkness. There was also a big wooden roller coaster. Later, the park had what must have been one of the first Wild Mouse rides. The park also had a midway with games of chance and a shooting gallery. But what I remember most was the french fries, served up hot with lots of salt in a paper cone. It was the first and only place in Baltimore that I ever saw people put vinegar on french fries.

    By the way, the Enchanted Forest was a kiddie park featuring storybook characters like Snow White and Cinderella. It closed about 15 years ago, another victim of suburban development, but a week before it closed our daughter, then around 10, had one of the last birthday parties held in the park, thanks to a thoughtful aunt.