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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Match Point: Fighting Racial Discrimination in Druid Hill Park Pt. 2

Posted on November 8th, 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 II: An Interivew with Mitzi Freishtat Swan

Missed part 1? Start here.

Anita Kassof (AK): Mitzi, tell us about what happened on the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park in 1938.

Mitzi Freishtat Swan (MFS): You could say that it was a protest, and it also was a demonstration because it was well advertised. We put up flyers, we sent notices to the Sun papers, to the police department, to the city officials that we were going to do this. It wasn’t like there was a complete surprise. They knew that we were going to be there.

This was right after World War II. It was 1948, the war ended in 1945. And the tennis courts in Druid Hill were segregated; there were black tennis courts and there were white tennis courts. The black tennis courts were in very poor shape. They were rutted, there were only a couple of them, and they were in very poor condition. Some white friends of mine had some black friends that they used to play tennis with. And they used to meet them on the black tennis courts, but then they decided, well, why not come on the white courts? And they were summarily told to get out by the Park police. There was never any law against interracial tennis; it was just a City policy. And if you disobeyed the policy you were told to get out or you were arrested. So we decided that we were going to stage this protest.

AK: When you say “we” do you mean the Young Progressives?

MFS: Yes, we were part of the Young Progressives, the third party that was under the sponsorship of the Progressive Party of Maryland. This was before the elections of 1948 and as members of the Young Progressives we were very active in promoting Henry Wallace as the third-party candidate. And we believed that things should be integrated. People came home from World War II – having fought for democracy and liberty and all these kind of things – and they came home to a city that was just as segregated as when they left it, and the parks and all the park facilities were segregated. Blacks couldn’t even go to the picnic groves. So it was a pervasive policy that was taking place in the parks, and we thought that was wrong. And we wanted to make a statement to that effect. So, we talked it over, and we decided that a protest would be a good thing to do.

Barry Kessler (BK): When did you start getting involved with the Young Progressives and what brought you into the group?

MFS: Many different things. My parents were part of the Progressive Party, so I saw a lot of the literature that came from them. And there were also some things that were taking place in Washington. As a high school student, with a big group, I heard Paul Robeson in Washington. That was just a marvelous atmosphere. I got involved with the Young Progressives because of the things that I heard, because of the things that I read. That’s why I got involved. I was actually doing it more than my parents were.

AKL Tell us about what you did on the day of the protest.

MFS: On the day it took place, I went with another member to the park and we got permits. You had to have a permit to be able to play on the courts. So we got two permits, one for the women to play on and the other for the men to play on. And we were there at 8 o’clock in the morning to make sure we got those permits, and then we had to wait until 2:00. But meanwhile the Park police knew that we were going to be there and the City police knew we were going to be there. And let me tell you something, they had those police cars waiting for us. I later wrote a story about it in one of my writing classes. I might have exaggerated a little bit but I said, “And there they were, on the crest of the hill, hands on their hips and handy billies in their hands.” And they were. They had that club just waiting to crack a couple of heads.

Mitzi Freishtat in 1947. Courtesy of Mitzi Freishtat Swan.

Mitzi Freishtat in 1947. Courtesy of Mitzi Freishtat Swan.

AK: How did you feel before the protest?

MFS: I was worried. I was scared. To be honest, I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And when we went to get the permits, I was really nervous. And then the whole day, waiting. Once you got on the tennis courts it was all right. We just fell in. We had two whites and two blacks on each court, playing doubles. But it was that waiting around, not knowing what’s going to happen or anything like that. Once you saw all these people there who were supporting you, though, that gives you an added impetus to do it.

When it was time to play, the men started up first and as soon as they went to hit a ball the police – six, seven – came on the courts and told them to leave. And they refused. And the police said, “If you don’t leave we’re going to arrest you.” Well, some of the guys sat down and they had to be carried off. Then when they came to the women’s courts, we started playing and the same thing happened. “Course we didn’t sit down. We walked off. They were putting everyone in the wagons – black mariahs they used to call them- except three of us who were the youngest, females, were taken in a police car. I’d just turned 18.

We were taken down to the Northern Police Station. And three of the women were put in the judge’s chambers and the rest of them were put behind bars. And they were whoopin’ it up and they were singing songs. They were having a good time down there. And then of course bail was posted. It was the next day that we had the hearing before the magistrate of the court. And, oh, it was ridiculous. Some of the police said they were hearing all kinds of songs they didn’t recognized, but people were actually singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee. They were singing patriotic songs! And they were singing the Negro national anthem. But the police said they had no idea what it was.

AK: How did you determine who would play in the match? Were all of the black players members of the Young Progressives?

MFS: Some of them were members of the Young Progressives. But most of them came from the Baltimore Tennis Club. And that was an all-black tennis club. It’s still in existence today. And a lot of those players were much better than we were. Jeannette Fino and I were tennis players, so we automatically said we would play. A lot of us were tennis players. I lived right across the street from the park and I played tennis and my brother subsequently became a champion tennis player, all from playing in City parks. And this other Gloria, she was a tennis player. The only one who wasn’t really a tennis player was Mary Coffee.

AK: Would you describe the crowd and what was going on with the spectators?

MFS:  We brought a big crowd of people, and I mean we had a big crowd. It was like a picnic atmosphere. It was very, very upbeat. Everybody had their blankets out and their picnic baskets and all that kind of stuff. And it was a really nice, a really happy thing. Until the arrests started, and then the whole crowd came up to their feet, and they were hollering. They were saying, “This is Nazi Germany! Why can’t they play? They’re American citizens!” Well, some of the people got a little boisterous and they got arrested for disorderly conduct. But there was absolutely no violence whatsoever.

My family was there, except my father was still working. He came later. But when I was being arrested, my brother was chasing the police car. He was crying, which he didn’t usually do. I mean, he must have been wondering, what’s she being arrested for?

AK: But all the players, black and white, were arrested?

MFS: Yes, all the players were arrested. And also some people were arrested who were mingling outside the Northern Police Station. Because everybody was out there waiting to see what was going to happen and some of those were arrested. There were 22 people altogether who were arrested.

AK: I understand you met your future husband that day. What brought him to the protest?

MFS: He was a seaman. A whole bunch of them came. The flyers came to their union hall. They were also part of the Progressive Party too. They had a very liberal wing in their union. And so a whole bunch of them came up to be there. We both got arrested the same day. He was one of the ones who was arrested for disorderly conduct. He was not a tennis player. He was one of the seamen who came there. There was a whole group that came over. And so I didn’t see him that day, but I met him in court. Oh, we had a big party that night. That’s when I got to meet him. That was in 1948. And I graduate college in ’51 and I got married in ’52. So I didn’t see him all the time during that time. As a matter of fact I didn’t particularly like him when I met him. I mean, I liked him but there were no sparks or anything like that. That wasn’t until later, when I started to get to know him. He was very romantic.

Continue to Part III: An Interview with Mitzi Freishtat Swan Continued

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