Match Point: Fighting Racial Discrimination in Druid Hill Park Pt. 1

Posted on November 1st, 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 I: Everyone for Tennis?

Glancing back at the hundreds of spectators surrounding the clay tennis courts in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park that blazing Sunday afternoon in July 1948, Mitzi Freishtat grabbed her racket and began to volley, getting ready for a game of doubles along with seven other dedicated young people. But Mitzi wasn’t warming up for a tournaments; before long the park police arrived, ordered the players to desist, and placed them all under arrest when they refused. Their crime: playing tennis together, whites and blacks, in opposition to the Parks Board policy of strict racial segregation.

The festive atmosphere at the tennis courts that morning belied the serious intent of the players and their backers. They were taking on Jim Crow, the repressive practice of keeping whites and black apart in public facilities of every kind that had pervaded the American South, including Maryland, since the late 1800s. They were taking a stand on the thorniest issue facing Baltimore’s parks and recreation system in the twentieth century, and their courageous action was one of the earliest and most effective protests against segregation in Baltimore.

Although theoretically “open to all persons upon absolutely equal terms,” most of Baltimore’s parks had been restricted largely to whites for half a century under the pretense of “separate but equal.” A few years after the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which sanctioned states’ prohibition of the social intermingling of blacks and whites in public places, the Maryland Assembly enacted segregationist laws. This created a convoluted, divisive, and ultimately unworkable system which only disappeared with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education.

Racial segregation in the parks was never legislated, but the Parks Board and its police enforced a “separate but equal” policy. In 1905 the Afro-American newspaper protested unsuccessfully to the Board that blacks were being steered to separate picnic groves and excluded from the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park. By 1915 the Board had equipped a room in the basement of the Druid Hill Park Mansion House “for the special accommodation of negroes,” noting that the park was being used increasingly by blacks. For the most part white Baltimoreans vociferously insisted on the practice of segregation in a continuing attempt to keep blacks out of “their” parks, especially in facilities used by people of both sexes, such as dancing pavilions, golf courses, and swimming pools.

Due to intimidation from hostile whites elsewhere, Druid Hill Park became the only large park where Baltimore blacks felt comfortable. All the facilities set aside for blacks, except for the golf course in Carroll Park, were located in a single area in the west-central portion of Druid Hill: by 1909 there was a playground for black children; by 1919, tennis courts; and in June 1921 a swimming pool opened as well.

In the 1930s attempts to change the Parks Board policy centered around the Carroll Park Golf Course, which was obviously inferior. But in 1948 activists began to attack segregation on several fronts. The Easterwood Progressive Club sponsored an interracial basketball team, which it proposed to enter in Bureau of Recreation league play. Black golfers won an order in federal court to open all the municipal courses to blacks on designated days. But the most explosive action of the uneasy summer of 1948 was the interracial tennis match that Mitzi Freishtat, now Mitzi Swan, had a hand in: it was part political stage show, part frustrated outburst, and part pioneering non-violent civil disobedience.

Jewish boys playing softball in Druid Hill Park, c. 1938. JMM 1987.19.5 Pictured are: Eddie Schunick, Melvin Kerber, Stanley Berngartt (Stanford Reed), and Robert Blaney.

Jewish boys playing softball in Druid Hill Park, c. 1938. JMM 1987.19.5
Pictured are: Eddie Schunick, Melvin Kerber, Stanley Berngartt (Stanford Reed), and Robert Blaney.

The protest was organized by the Young Progressives of Maryland, an interracial political group that included many Jews living near Druid Hill Park. The group was a branch of the left-liberal Progressive Party, supporting its strong civil rights platform and its candidate for President, Henry Wallace. The Freishtat parents were Progressive Party members, and passed along their liberal principles and activist impulse to their teenage daughter.

The Young Progressives sought out members of the black Baltimore Tennis Club in order to stage a match protesting the segregation rule. The masterminds were Harold Buchman, an attorney connected with the Progressive Party, Stanley Askin, state director of the Young Progressives, and Maceo Howard of the Baltimore Tennis Club. While the Young Progressives were motivated by the opportunity to fight injustice, express their ideology, and promote the party agenda in an election year, the Tennis Club members simply felt the continuing frustration of confinement to a few overcrowded and dilapidated courts.

Mitzi Swan is one of the few still bearing witness to the event: her recollections, transcribed in the accompanying interview, describe the match and its legal aftermath in vivid detail. The case of the protestors was appealed all the way to the United State Supreme Court, which, however, refused to hear it. The Druid Hill Park tennis courts remained segregated for several more years, but the situation did prompt H. L. Mencken to write his final and oft-quoted column denouncing the Park Board rule as “irrational and nefarious” and a “relic of Ku Kluxery.”

For her part, Mitzi Swan continued to join civil rights protests, oppposing segregated seating at Ford’s Theater and the Lyric. “I have always done something,” she says of her lifelong activism. She worked on getting out the urban vote during the presidential election of 1952 and remained involved in civic affairs and progressive causes even after her daughters were born in 1954 and 1957. After her husband died in 1982 (He had also been arrested in connection with the 1948 tennis court protest), she threw herself into electoral politics and then became the paid director of a statewide advocacy organization for the poor and disadvantaged. She has also served on the boards of organizations providing temporary shelter for abused children and fighting for better services for city neighborhoods.

Continue to Part II: An Interview with Mitzi Freishtat Swan

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Chronology: Maryland and Israel Part 2, 1900 to 1950

Posted on August 28th, 2017 by

Compiled by Avi Y. Decter and Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

 Missed part 1? Start here.


German-speaking Baltimore Jews organize the Theodor Herzl Zionistischer Verein (Zionist Association), the first German-speaking Zionist organization in America. A leading Reform rabbi, William Rosenau, declares: “I believe that one can be a good reform Jew and be a Zionist.” Two of the organization’s founders, Dr. Harry Friedenwald (Aaron’s son) and Henrietta Szold, will play major roles in the history of Zionism, nationally and internationally.

Baltimore Jews also organize Kadima, a vigorous Zionist group that also concerns itself with local Jewish problems, creating a bridge between the Zionist movement and the community as a whole.



Harry Friedenwald, with inscription to Louis L. Kaplan. JMM 1996.10.64

Harry Friedenwald, with inscription to Louis L. Kaplan. JMM 1996.10.64

Dr. Harry Friedenwald (b. 1864) of Baltimore is elected the second President of the Federation of American Zionists, serving until 1917 and as honorary President until his death in 1950.


1996.010.064 – Photograph of Harry Friedenwald, with inscription to Louis L. Kaplan.



Dr. Herman Seidel with a Zionist group believed to be Poalei Zion, c. 1905. JMM 1963.9.1

Dr. Herman Seidel with a Zionist group believed to be Poalei Zion, c. 1905. JMM 1963.9.1

In December, a recent immigrant to Baltimore from Lithuania, Herman Seidel (1884-1969), organizes in Baltimore the first national convention of the Poale Zion (Zionist Workers) organization with 22 delegates in attendance. The Labor Zionist movement supports kibbutzim (cooperative settlements), the labor union Histadrut, and worker-owned businesses in Palestine. Every Friday night, Seidel attracts a crowd to his soapbox on a corner in East Baltimore, where he encourages support for the pioneer working Jews of Palestine.



Boris Schatz

Boris Schatz, courtesy of the Schatz Estate.

Sculptor Boris Schatz (1867-1932) founds the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem to create a completely Jewish art blending Jewish motifs, Near Eastern design, and art nouveau forms. Jews traveling to Palestine return with the school’s jewelry, rugs, metalwork, and wood carvings, reminders of the Land of Israel. Bezalel products are exhibited at expositions in Baltimore in 1914 and 1931, and also at local Zionist stores such as Fannie Drazen’s in East Baltimore.


Henrietta Szold takes her first trip to Palestine, where she is appalled by the health conditions of the Jewish and Arab residents. Upon her return, she organizes Zionist study groups and travels around the United States, speaking about Palestine.



In New York, Henrietta Szold founds and is elected first President of the Hadassah Chapter of the Daughters of Zion. Two years later, the organization is re-named Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Hadassah funds and organizes progressive health and social services in the Land of Israel which eventually grow into the Hadassah Hospital, while Hadassah becomes the largest Jewish membership organization in the United States. A branch of Hadassah is established in Baltimore in 1913.


Louis H. Levin, c. 1915. Photo by Nat Lipsitz, JMM 1987.80.2

Louis H. Levin, c. 1915. Photo by Nat Lipsitz, JMM 1987.80.2

Baltimoreans gain national attention by sending a thousand tons of food to starving Jews in Palestine. Louis H. Levin travels with the ship S.S. Vulcan to Palestine and supervises distribution of the food.


In June, Zionists from around the country gather in Baltimore for a week-long meeting featuring leading Zionist thinkers and speakers. The convention and its distinguished guests inspire mass demonstrations in the City and inspire local Zionist activists and organizations.

Great Britain issues the Balfour Declaration on 2 November, declaring that Britain views “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” When Great Britain organizes the Jewish Legion to help free Palestine from the Turks, Dr. Herman Seidel serves as a recruiting officer for the Legion in the Baltimore-Washington area. About 90 young Baltimoreans volunteer to serve. The Jewish Legion becomes the first Jewish “army” in modern times.

 Rabbi Abraham Schwartz (1871-1937). JMM 1976.1.1

Rabbi Abraham Schwartz (1871-1937). JMM 1976.1.1

A branch of the religious Zionist organization Mizrachi is organized in Baltimore by Rabbis Shepsal Schaffer, Avraham N. Schwartz, and Reuben Rivkin. Mizrachi, founded in 1902 as the religious faction of the World Zionist Organization, is based on the idea that Torah should be the guiding force of a Jewish state in Palestine


Dr. Harry Friedenwald is appointed chairman of the Zionist Commission, intended to help realize the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The next year, Dr. Friedenwald, Rudolph Sonneborn, and others travel on a medical mission to Palestine.


Zionist Society of the Johns Hopkins Unversity, 1924. JMM 1991.104.4

Zionist Society of the Johns Hopkins Unversity, 1924. JMM 1991.104.4

Johns Hopkins University students and faculty organize the Collegiate Zionist Society of Baltimore. The Society holds a weekly study circle and monthly meetings to publicize Zionist ideas on campus and to raise funds for the cause. Professors David Blondheim, Aaron Ember, and Aaron Schaffer serve as faculty leaders and contribute to national college-level Zionist efforts. Jonas Friedenwald (1897-1955) serves as President of the Society during his years at Hopkins and later assists with the development of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School.



Postcard certificate for the purchase of a tree for the Jewish National Fund, Tree Fund, 1919. JMM 1988.99.1

Postcard certificate for the purchase of a tree for the Jewish National Fund, Tree Fund, 1919. JMM 1988.99.1

Baltimore establishes its first Jewish National Fund Committee. The JNF was established in 1901 to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. By 1904, it had enough land for its first village, Kfar Hittim.



Two campers at Camp Moshava Labor Zionist Camp.Gift of the Beser Family,  JMM 1993.173.62

Two campers at Camp Moshava Labor Zionist Camp. Gift of the Beser Family, JMM 1993.173.62

Zionist youth groups establish summer programs, with outings in Druid Hill Park. In the 1930s, the Labor Zionist Habonim and the Religious Zionist Hashomer Hadati share a Severn River shore property owned by Sigmund Sonneborn. Today, Zionist education remains central to Habonim Camp Moshava near Bel Air, where campers speak Hebrew, practice Labor movement ideology, and enjoy Israeli dancing, theater, and arts.



Seven women from the Labor Zionists (Poale Zion) organize a Baltimore chapter of Pioneer Women, the Women’s Labor Zionist Organization of America (today known as NA’AMAT USA). Through the years, the organization supports a variety of projects aimed at improving conditions for women and children in Palestine and, later, Israel. In 1972 the group opens a “Baltimore Day Care Center” in S’derot. Today, many Baltimoreans continue to participate in NA’AMAT USA and its mission to support the women and children of Israel.


Henrietta Szold at AZMU in Jerusalem, c. 1920. JMM 1992.242.7.42a

Henrietta Szold at AZMU in Jerusalem, c. 1920. JMM 1992.242.7.42a

Henrietta Szold, now living in Palestine, organizes and supervises the Youth Aliyah movement to bring young Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to Palestine. The new organization secures visas, provides transportation, and helps to settle the new arrivals in Jewish agricultural settlements. The movement rescues 11,000 young German Jews from the Nazis.


 Aaron Straus. JMM 1991.178.1

Aaron Straus. JMM 1991.178.1

The American Council for Judaism is founded primarily by Reform Jews to combat Jewish nationalism and oppose the establishment of a Jewish state. Baltimore philanthropist Aaron Straus (1865-1958) is a key financial backer and Rabbi Morris Lazaron (1888-1979) is one of its ideological spokesmen.


On 25 June, Baltimorean Rudolf Sonneborn brings together Jewish industrial leaders in a New York meeting with David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine. In the 1950s, Sonneborn serves as national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.


Richard Henig in lower left, passengers on Exodus ship to Palestine, ca. 1945. JMM 1993.50.14

Richard Henig in lower left, passengers on Exodus ship to Palestine, ca. 1945. JMM 1993.50.14

Baltimore Jews purchase the S.S. President Warfield, a Chesapeake Bay steamer, re-fit the ship, and load a cargo of guns and ammunition. The ship sails to France where it embarks 4,530 Holocaust survivors destined for Palestine. The ship, re-named Exodus 1947, is intercepted by the British and its passengers are interned. The international furor that follows makes the Exodus “the ship that launched a State.”


"They shall come home/Mazel Tov to Israel State/Sunday May 16th, 1948" from Ahavas Shalom Synagogue on Poppleton Street

“They shall come home/Mazel Tov to Israel State/Sunday May 16th, 1948” from Ahavas Shalom Synagogue on Poppleton Street. JMM T1989.13.2

The State of Israel is declared on 14 May. On the 19th, Baltimore Jews rally in support of the new state outside of Beth Tfiloh Synagogue. Speakers include Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., who declares that “America must rally to the support of the new Jewish state, morally and in every way. As Americans we can do no less.” A second rally is organized at the Fifth Regiment Armory on 3 June, drawing 6,000 people at which actor Murray Slatkin reads a poem by Baltimorean Karl Shapiro: “When I think of the battle for Zion / I hear the drop of chains . . .”

Continue to Part III: Maryland and Israel, 1950 to 2008

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Generations 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure

Posted on November 7th, 2016 by

Generations 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure

Table of Contents

Introduction by Avi Y. Decter

A Club of Their Own: Suburban and Woodholme Through the Years by Deborah R. Weiner

The Dancing Schools of Baltimore’s Jewish Society by Gilbert Sandler

Equine Passion: The Cohen Family at Pimlico Race Course by Robin Z. Waldman

Match Point: Fighting Racial Discrimination in Druid Hill Park by Barry Kessler with Anita Kassof

City of Champions: Major League Sports and Baltimore Jews by Diane L. Jacobsohn

“A Nice Clean Room”: Pool Hall Portraits from 1950s Baltimore by Michael A. Lang

Amateur Jewish Athletes: Then and Now by Jobi O. Zink

Chronology: The Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore

Field Notes: National Museum of American Jewish History by Mike Silver and Ari Kelman

Review: Martin Abramowitz, Jewish Major Leaguers by Raphael Alvarez


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