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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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.

1903

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.

 

1904

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.

 

1905

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.

 

1906

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.

1909

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.

 

1912

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.

1915

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.

1917

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

1918

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.

 

1920

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.

 

1920s

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.

 

1926

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.

1933

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.

1942

 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.

1945

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.

1947

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.”

1948

"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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