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Responding to this moment

Posted on June 3rd, 2020 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

When JMM staff approached me about moderating one of the two conversations we had planned to accompany our now-virtual exhibit,, I didn’t hesitate to say “yes.” Those who know me well know the #BaltimoreUprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody five years ago was a touchstone on my personal antiracism journey. I was glad to be able to lend my voice and presence to a conversation marking the fifth anniversary of a time that was so important to my understanding of the world and my role in it. Two weeks later, on May 21, 2020, I was again pleased to play a role in another conversation, this time with female activists and journalists working to expose and address the root causes of the Uprising.

In my introduction to that second event, I answered the question I had heard spoken or implied many times: “why is JMM getting involved in commemorating the Baltimore Uprising?”

My answer was two-fold: First, at JMM, we regularly assert that Maryland Jewish history is Maryland history, and since we make that assertion, we must value and amplify its corollary: Maryland African American History is Maryland History. And second, at JMM, we know that the Jewish community of Maryland is diverse and multi-ethnic. When most of us think of American Jews, we imagine white-skinned Ashkenazi Jews. And, though there are a lot of us, (I am one) the Jewish community is made up of white, black, and brown people. Which means that institutional and structural racism, the root causes of the Baltimore Uprising, are Jewish issues.

Little did I know those root causes would reveal themselves again with such heartbreaking clarity less than a week later in Minneapolis.

His name was George Floyd. The whole world has watched the cruel treatment Mr. Floyd received at the hands of men who wore a uniform issued by a city government. The world watched, and we were horrified, outraged, saddened, terrified, sickened. (The exact emotional response changes depending on the person reacting and the moment.) Protests in response to Mr. Floyd’s death have sprung up around the country—indeed, around the world. Many have turned violent, though there is evidence at least some of the violence is caused by saboteurs, not protestors. In Baltimore, we can’t help but see parallels with what happened here five years ago. To be frank, it’s disheartening. It’s disheartening that so little has changed in these five years, that the pain and anger and heartache is happening again.

But there is also reason for hope. I am noticing many more of my fellow white-skinned Americans paying attention to questions of race and racism than I have in my memory. As I write this, the top three books on Amazon’s best seller list are White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, So You Want to Talk about Race, and We’re Different, We’re the Same (a kids’ book about race). In my opinion, this is a great sign. As Marvin said in his statement from the Museum on George Floyd’s death and the ongoing protests, “We must educate ourselves. We must listen, truly listen, to the voices of people who don’t look or live or worship as we do. We must commit to being upstanders, not bystanders. We will only change the story if we change ourselves.”

I want to urge us all to be steadfast. We cannot let this impulse to learn more and to move toward antiracism be a trend we abandon as quickly as we picked it up. I believe this work to be among the most important work we can do if we want to leave our children a better world. To that end, I want to offer a thought experiment, especially to my fellow Jews who may be reading this.

When I want to better understand a situation, I often find it helpful to find a parallel that is closer to me—a situation with which I am more familiar that is somehow similar to the one I seek to understand. I want to offer you a parallel for this moment: imagine what it would look like, what it would feel like if men and women wearing uniforms issued by a governmental agency were disproportionately killing unarmed Jews with little to no consequences. Imagine it happening over and over and over and over again. Imagine complaining about it, protesting it, alerting your non-Jewish neighbors in various ways for generations, and not being believed by the majority who distrust you and think you must be lying because you don’t worship as they do. “You must have done something to deserve it,” they say, and go back to their lives.

Sadly, we don’t have to work too hard to imagine such a reality. It has a familiar air about it*.

Stay with me.

Imagine in this reality that however you protest the frequent and seemingly indiscriminate killing of unarmed Jews, you’re told it’s the wrong way to protest. You’re criticized when Jewish athletes use their platform to protest. You’re criticized when you peacefully march in the street. You’re criticized when you dare say, “Jewish lives matter.” Imagine after generations of this, some people at a protest are so frustrated at never being heard, they lose control of their anger and destroy property. Others take advantage of the moment of chaos, and loot or steal. Now your non-Jewish neighbors call you names. They tell you in direct and indirect ways, the fact that your sons and daughters keep getting killed is much less important than the fact that some who participated in protests of those killings caused property damage.

This is not some dystopian future I’m describing. It’s the reality your black and brown friends, neighbors, loved ones, and at least 12 to 15% of our fellow Jews, are living right now, in 2020. I invite you to sit with that for a moment. Really sit with it. Now ask yourself, if the roles were different, if it really were Jews’ deaths being protested, what would you want your non-Jewish neighbors to do about it?

Once you have your answer, you know what you – what we – must do.**

*Pictured: (Left) Broadside, directive for a “Mr. Lynch” to leave the 9th ward in 30 days or else be “visited” by a group of 300 men. “The White Caps” will take the law into their own hands. “Beware! Beware!” printed across bottom, May 7, 1889. Possibly directed against a Bacharach who ran for public office. JMM 1991.147.39. (Center) Sign stating pool for approved gentiles only at the Meadowbrook Swimming Club. JMM 1995.201.2. (Right) Cartoon from “Puck” magazine regarding hotel discrimination and Jews. JMM 1991.147.38.

**Pictured: Title from 1941 pamphlet produced by the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation Council and the American Jewish Committee. To Bigotry No Sanction: A Documented Analysis of Anti-Semitic Propaganda. JMM 1988.211.32.


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Match Point: Fighting Racial Discrimination in Druid Hill Park Pt. 4

Posted on November 22nd, 2017 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Barry Kessler with Anita Kassof. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Sidebar 1: H.L. Mencken’s Last Column

Missed the beginning? Start Here.

In one of his final columns H.L. Mencken – considered by some both racist and anti-Semitic- surprised his readers with his comments on the continuing controversy over the tennis court protests. As a new student at the University of Maryland in the fall of 1948, Mitzi Freishtat Swan recalls that when the column appeared, she was subject to renewed derision from some of her fellow students, who mocked her for her involvement in the protests.

When, on July 11 last, a gang of so-called Progressives, white and black, went to Druid Hill Park to stage an inter-racial tennis combat and were collared and jugged by the cops, it became instantly impossible for anyone to discuss the matter in a newspaper, save, of course, to report impartially the proceedings in court.

…But four months is a long while for journalists to keep silent on an important public matter, and if I bust out now it is simply and solely because I believe that the purpose of the rule has been sufficiently achieved. The accused have had their day in court, and no public clamor, whether pro or con, has corrupted the judicial process. Seven, it appears, have been adjudged guilty of conspiring to assemble unlawfully and fifteen others have been turned loose.

…But there remains an underlying question, and it deserves to be considered seriously and without any reference whatever to the cases lately at bar. It is this: Has the Park Board any right in law to forbid white and black citizens, if they are so inclined, to join in harmless games together on public playgrounds? Again: Is such a prohibition, even supposing that it is lawful, supported by anything to be found in common sense and common decency?

I do not undertake to answer the first question, for I am too ignorant of law, but my answer to the second is a loud and unequivocal No. A free citizen in a free state, it seems to me, has an inalienable right to play with whomsoever he will, so long as he does not disturb the general peace. If any other citizen, offended by the spectacle, makes a pother, then that other citizen, and not the man exercising his inalienable right, should be put down by the police.

Certainly it is astounding to find so much of the spirit of the Georgia Cracker surviving in the Free State, and under official auspices. The public parts are supported by the taxpayer, including the colored taxpayer, for the health and pleasure of the whole people. Why should cops be sent into them to separate those people, against their will, into separate herds? Why should the law set up distinctions and discriminations which the persons directly affected themselves reject?

…It is high time that all such relics of Ku Kluxery be wiped out in Maryland. The position of the colored people, since the political revolution of 1895, has been gradually improving in the State, and it has already reached a point surpassed by few other states. But there is still plenty of room for further advances, and it is irritating indeed to see one of them blocked by silly Dogberrys. The Park Board rule is irrational and nefarious. It should be got rid of forthwith.”

-“Mencken Calls Tennis Order Silly, Nefarious”, Baltimore Morning Sun, November 9, 1948.

~The End~

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Match Point: Fighting Racial Discrimination in Druid Hill Park Pt. 3

Posted on November 15th, 2017 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Barry Kessler with Anita Kassof. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Part III: An Interview with Mitzi Freishtat Swan Continued

Missed Parts 1-2? Start Here.

BK: Tell us about the follow-up, after the event. What was the trial like?

MFS:  The trial took place in October 1948 in Baltimore City Criminal Court. The judge was Herman Moser. The prosecutor was Alan H. Murell. And the defense attorneys were I. Duke Avnet, Harold Buchman, William Murphy, and Edgar Boyko. The charges against us were conspiracy to create an unlawful assembly in a public park, and violating park rules by refusing to obey orders of Park police. We were also charged with entering into a conspiracy for the express purpose of disturbing the peace. Those were the charges.

And the Park police were called to testify then and they said the same thing they said in Magistrate’s Court, where they mentioned the singing of songs, that and they didn’t like being called names like Gestapo or something like that. And Alan Murrell, in arguing the case, said, “Are we going to substitute in this city, this state, and this land, under our form of government, revolution for evolution?” And Avnet’s defense was, “No matter how much the state tries to hide it, the real issue is what are the rights of our people, and whether discrimination such as this is legal under the constitution of the Federal government and the State of Maryland. What is on trial here is persecution. What is involved are the rights of colored people.” He pointed to the history of persecution along the lines of religion and labor, and declared that in each instance, when these matters came before the courts, the real issues were camouflaged. Judge Moser said at one point, “Assuming this rule is so, I don’t see much sense in a rule banning interracial sports in one section of the park and then selling tickets in another section interracial games such as baseball and the like.” Which is really a very good statement.

So the charges were dropped against 17 defendants for violating park rules. Seven were convicted of conspiring to unlawfully assemble and disturbing the peace. The sentence was withheld pending new trials. They appealed it and they were found guilty of conspiracy. And they had a suspended jail term. The seven charges that were sustained were the people charged with disturbing the peace. They had to drop charges against the players. There was a lot of pressure going on, because there was no law against what they were doing.

AK: Did any of the protesters lose jobs or suffer other serious consequences as a result of their activities?

MFS: I know that most of the black men who worked at the post office were fired. Some of the white protesters suffered some consequences but they didn’t actually lose their jobs. See, a lot of us were students. Some of them went to Maryland, some of them went to Morgan. Some people were postal workers, we had some who had been seamen, and we had some who worked in steel mills. We were a whole big conglomeration of different kinds of people who, in ordinary life, you wouldn’t have met them.

AK: That fall, you started college. Tell us about that.

MFS: I went away to college, to the University of Maryland, and my life got involved in all that. I have to tell you, there were repercussions in college from people who met me, because the press was very negative. The press red-baited us like crazy. Every time the articles came out, everybody’s name was listed. And I would think, oh no, here we’re going to go again with another whole big bunch of stuff in school. It was not welcomed, it was not welcomed.

In my own family, my mother’s sister was appalled, saying, “How could you let your daughter do something like this?” You know, horrible. And, in turn, her son, who was my cousin, had some friends who went to Maryland. And they used to come back with stories that people weren’t talking to me, really digging it in. Actually, some people supported you, but most people didn’t. They did not want to see integration take place. They wanted the status quo. But most people just ignored it.

AK: Were you involved in politics at all at Maryland? Were you still a member of the Young Progressives?

MFS: Yes, we tried to keep a group going but the school made it very difficult to reserve a room. They really didn’t want us to be there. As to the group that had organized the protest, I was away at school, people had different jobs, and then the elections ended and it just fell apart. You’d see some of the people sometimes but it wasn’t a cohesive group.

BK: I wonder if you could go back and tell us a little bit about growing up near Druid Hill Park in terms of the sports and the recreation activities that you and your friends were doing in the park. What role did the park play in your life?

MSF: The park was a big thing. We used to play tennis there. We also used some of the pavilions for picnics. We used to go out there with a group. Not as the Young Progressives, but just in general to take picnics. They also had baseball games there. I was already too old to go on the playground but I used to pass the playground (I moved near the park when I was about thirteen years old). Where I was living tennis was a big thing. There were a lot of players who were very good. Tennis was a big thing in the neighborhood because the courts were there. These were clay courts but we were also close to the other courts, the concrete courts. I don’t think they use them anymore. I used to walk it all the time because also right where those courts were there was the swimming pool, which was a white swimming pool. So we used to go over there all the time because we used the pool all the time.

"Goofing around" in Druid Hill Park, c. 1945. JMM 2009.7.1 Pictured includes Hy Zlotowitz (Hy Zolet) on left, back center is Royal Pollokoff.

“Goofing around” in Druid Hill Park, c. 1945. JMM 2009.7.1
Pictured includes Hy Zlotowitz (Hy Zolet) on left, back center is Royal Pollokoff.

BK: What about the larger, say, Jewish community around the park? Was there a sense that the protest was the right thing to do or did they respond negatively?

MFS:  Let me give you an interesting story. My grandfather was a cantor in the synagogue. He was very Orthodox and he lived in the neighborhood. And he never, ever said a word against it. Ever. He, I mean he loved me just as much as before.

BK: Did you get the sense that because many people in the Jewish community were progressive that they supported what you were doing”

MFS: I wouldn’t say that. Most of the people were apolitical. They were not the least bit concerned because they were conscerned with their own families and things like that. They were not interested in African Americans in particular. Even people who were liberal didn’t do anything to show their support, in particular. People are afraid to do that.

AK:  Did being Jewish have anything to do with your motivations for joining the protest?

MFS: Oh, absolutely. My mother and father were immigrants to this country and my mother as a child lived in Russia. She came from one of these small towns. And being Jewish there, you were victims of the pogroms, as she was. But she was also a very smart kid, and she could pass the test that allowed her to go into the Russian schools. So she went to the Russian school, but she got hit with stones every day when she walked to school, and taunted. And this was when she was very young, six, seven years old, because she came over to this country when she was 13 or 14. And so my mother always told me those stories about what prejudice does, and I grew up with those stories. So it was just a step forward, that if the Jews are persecuted like that, you know black people were being persecuted the way we were. And so that just fell into my way of thinking.

BK: In your neighborhood and in your daily life did you have any interaction with black people? You were obviously someone who believed strongly in civil rights, but did you actually interact with black people on a day-to-day basis?

MFS: There wasn’t much interaction. You have to understand, the neighborhood was all white, and the only interaction I would have would be at Young Progressive meetings. Other than that, there was no interaction. The schools were segregated, everything was segregated, so there was just no way that there would be any interaction at all. There was no real avenue for meeting African Americans. The movies were segregated, everything was segregated. I mean, there was no crossing anything. So there was no way that you would even know anyone that was African American in your regular life because your regular life just didn’t cross with theirs.

BK: What effect did the protest and the court case have on policies? Did it suddenly become possible for black and white people to play on the courts together?

MFS: It did, but not suddenly. Segregation gradually stopped, because I know that my brother played in the first interracial tennis match in that park, on the same courts, with the Baltimore Tennis Club.

BK: After the protest, did the Young Progressives feel as if they had won a battle against segregation?

MFS: It’s an interesting question. You know, in hindsight, I didn’t realize at the time what we were doing, that is was really such a historical event. We just did it because we thought it was the right thing to do. We hoped that that would be the beginning of a change, but we didn’t know at the time.

Marjorie Greenebaum, Carol Kastner Traub, and Lillian Donahue at the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park, 1950. JMM 2010.24.1

Marjorie Greenebaum, Carol Kastner Traub, and Lillian Donahue at the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park, 1950. JMM 2010.24.1

AK: Now it’s a badge of honor, what you did during the Civil Rights era. When do you think the attitudes began to shift, from your being ostracized or criticized for what you did, to being honored for what you did?

MFS: The biggest honor was in 1989, when Barry did the exhibition about Baltimore’s parks and the Baltimore City Life Museums organized a reunion. But earlier, in 1982 or 1983, the Baltimore Tennis Club invited us to come out to their games and we were introduced to their players and the other people that were there. It was the last day of their match. And the young people there had never known that the tennis courts were ever segregated! They had no idea. And that surprised me. I would have thought that parents would have told them.

I tell you, the only thing I really regret is that my husband didn’t live to see when we were heroes instead of people calling us name and everything. We were vilified, and then all of a sudden we were heroes. My grandson thinks what I did was the coolest thing! The youth of today is much different than when I was young. They are more activists, they’re more aware of what’s going on. When I was growing up, most of them couldn’t care less what was happening, so it’s heartening to me – even though some of them I don’t agree with – but that they’re doing something, standing up for what they believe in. I find that very heartening.

Continue to Sidebar 1: H.L. Mencken’s Last Column

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