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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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A Club of Their Own: Suburban and Woodholme Through the Years, Part 5

Posted on October 11th, 2017 by

generations 2004Article by Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Part V: Controversies and Changing Times

Missed parts 1-4? Start here.

Before Glick, wives of Woodholme members didn’t play much gold, observes Sewell Sugar. Perhaps that’s because club policies toward women, as at most other clubs around the country, weren’t exactly equitable. Women became “much more a part of the club in the fifties” and continued to make gains in ensuing decades. They “had to push a little bit,” says Sugar, because most of the older people were not prone to change.” One who pushed was Lyn P. Meyerhoff, a woman who enjoyed “thumbing her nose at convention,” according to her daughter Lee. Once, Meyerhoff “did nine holes of the Woodholme Country Club golf course backward, because women were always bumped by the men for tee-off times, and she was furious at the ‘old fart’ inequity of the practice.” She also dove off the high-dive at the Woodholme pool when she was five months pregnant, “at a time when women covered their bellies behind voluminous tent dresses.” This was in the 1950s, when, it appears, the extended Meyerhoff family considerably livened things up at the club.[1]

Suburban Club swimming pool, July 1927. Photograph by the Baltimore News. JMM 1985.35.3

Suburban Club swimming pool, July 1927. Photograph by the Baltimore News. JMM 1985.35.3

Lyn Meyerhoff heralded a changing attitude among at least some wives of club members, who slowly began to assert themselves. Their emergence led to what members of both country clubs see as the biggest single change to take place over the years: the clubs’ policies toward children. Originally, the clubs catered strictly to adults, primarily men. Members from multi-generational Suburban Club families recall that the club was “not a child-friendly place” when they were young. Children were allowed on the grounds only during very limited hours and there were no special facilities for them. As society grew more child-centered, so did the country clubs. At Suburban, change stated with the inclusion of a Youth Room in the new clubhouse, built in 1960, and the installation of a “kiddie pool” in 1961. Hours for children slowly began to expand, and now, as Julius Westheimer notes, “it’s a family affair.” Ditto at Woodholme, which is “really a family club right now,” says Sewell Sugar.[2]

Despite the emergence of women and children, policies at Woodholme and other clubs have remained biased in favor of men in many areas. A Baltimore Sun article written during the 2003 controversy over the all-male policy at Augusta National (home of the Master’s golf tournament) revealed that Woodholme’s latest female golf standout, ten-time amateur women’s city champion and two-time state champion Andrea Kraus, was barred from teeing off until 11:30am on weekends and holidays, even though her husband Ken, “who often shoots in the triple digits,” could do so. “Country club golf certainly can be the last bastion of male chauvinism,” Kraus was quoted as saying.[3]

Rosalyn Shecter playing golf at Woodholme Country Club, c. 1968. JMM 1974.21.15

Rosalyn Shecter playing golf at Woodholme Country Club, c. 1968. JMM 1974.21.15

But things could be worse, unlike some clubs, both Woodholme and Suburban admit women to membership. (At Suburban, they had a sort of “junior” membership from the very beginning, while Woodholme admitted women to membership in later years.) After two decades of board wrangling, Suburban gave full voting rights to female members I n1988, and in 1990, “objections to sexism” caused the club to integrate its card rooms. Suburban now officially has “gender neutral” policies. Perhaps not totally out of choice, though: country clubs that benefit from a special tax break for preserving open space are legally required to be non-discriminatory. Suburban takes the tax break; Woodholme chooses not to.[4]

Of course, country clubs are famous for being bastions not only of male privilege, but also of white privilege. Suburban and Woodholme seem little different from the norm in that regard. Both have membership policies that do not officially discriminate with regard to race, religion, or gender. But the clubs have very few African American or non-Jewish members. A fascinating view of black-Jewish relations can be glimpsed in the memoir of Dewayne Wickham, an African American journalist who worked in Woodholme’s largely black caddy force in his teens during the early 1960s. Woodholme members were “not intentionally mean-spirited or racist,” but could be “condescending and patronizing in the way [of] many white liberals,” Wickham observes. Yet the club provided an anchor in his life, which had been marked by tragedy, and his affection for it shines through. He describes the generosity of many club members and the positive response of club officials to the caddies’ efforts to improve their working conditions. In his portrayal of fumbling attempts at communication across the racial divide made by caddies and members, and the shared love of golf that served as perhaps the most genuine link between the two, he captures the complexities of life in an unequal society just beginning to feel the effects of the civil rights movement.[5]

If societal change began to infiltrate the sheltered country club world of the 1950s, it started knocking loudly at the door during the turbulent years to come. Clubs fell out of favor as a result of “the new social consciousness which came out of the 1960s and which turned many people off to such status symbols as Cadillacs and country clubs.” This was the assessment of reporter Tom Nugent, whose 1977 Jewish Times exposé of Baltimore’s Jewish country clubs attempted to assess the fallout of the previous decade. To attract flagging interest, clubs had to alter their policies. “The relaxation of once-stringent dress codes; the drastic reduction of initiation fees…the liberalizing and streamlining of procedures for admission…all these things are evidence” of the transformation taking place, Nugent asserted. Worse, he noted, were “occasional incidents of shocking behavior in the club house,” including at least one instance of co-ed showering. He quoted an (anonymous) member of an (unnamed) club: “I know it must irritate the hell out of [older members] to see what’s happened in their club. They used to walk in and everything was very refined, and everything was very tastefully done – and it’s turned into Tackyville! The whole atmosphere is just completely different.”[6]

Nugent concluded, back in 1977, that country clubs faced an “uncertain future.” His informants had different views on whether or not they would even survive. “It’s all changing. It’s a way of life, really, that’s ending,” one member told him.[7]

Continue to Part VI: The View from a New Millenium

Notes:

[1] Sugar interview; Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, e-mail correspondence supplied to author, March 17, 2005.

[2] E. B. Hirsh, phone interview with author, December 2004; Morton Offit, phone interview with author, December 2004; Westheimer, Sugar, other interviews; The Suburban Club, 46.

[3] Don Markus, “Golf’s Private Policy Meets Public Debate,” Baltimore Sun, April 7, 2003, 1D.

[4] The Suburban Club, 45, 69; Woodholme Club Vertical File, JMM.

[5] Dewayne Wickham, Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 219.

[6] Tom Nugent, “Some Things You Always Wanted to Know About Country Clubs, And More,” Jewish Times, October 7, 1977, 31.

[7] Nugent, “Some Things You Always Wanted to Know,” 31, 34.

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On the Corner: Growing up Jewish in a Gentile Neighborhood Part 2

Posted on April 12th, 2013 by

Rudacille photoBy Deborah Rudacille. Ms. Rudacille is Visiting Professor of the Practice at UMBC and the author of ROOTS OF STEEL: Boom & Bust in an American Mill Town, a workers history of the Sparrows Point steelworks in Baltimore County.

PART TWO – Continued from yesterday’s post, click here to read PART ONE.

The greatest difference between the corner kids and their neighbors was, of course, religious, but most seem to have had at least a casual acquaintance with the neighborhood church—and the faith it professed. “My parish was St. Ann’s on Greenmount and 22nd Street,” says Raynor, sounding just like an old-school Catholic. When his friends had business to take care of at the church, “I would sit in the back row and wait for them.” Debby Shostack Friedman recalls attending services at St. Benedict’s “maybe two or three times for some special occasion.” Even her sister Harriet, who spent much less time in the neighborhood, recalls a visit to the church with her own gentile friends. “I remember one time they took me to St. Benedict’s church. They had to do something there and I went with them.”

Christian feast days were a source of curiosity and, for some, pleasure. “At Christmas time, neighbors would always invite us to see their trees and we would go from house to house,” Morty Weiner recalls. Rhea Feikin, too, enjoyed witnessing neighborhood festivities. “We didn’t observe Christmas. We didn’t observe Easter. But I grew up enjoying those holidays,” she says, “seeing how people celebrated them.”

Living among gentiles posed some temptations. Feikin, the young bacon-eater, recalls the day she decided to infiltrate the famously restricted Meadowbrook pool. “I knew that I couldn’t go to Meadowbrook,” she recalls, “but I wanted to go because all my girlfriends went. I thought, ‘how will they know’ so one day I went. I came home triumphant, to the total horror of my father and mother.” Her father spanked her, she says, and said “you will never go where you are not wanted.”

Meadowbrook Pool, c. 1950.

Meadowbrook Pool, c. 1950.

She continued to test limits, though with a bit more anxiety. Shortly after the Meadowbrook incident, she accompanied her neighborhood friends to the annual Christmas party at the Keswick Road police station, where one of the officers dressed as Santa and handed out presents to each child. “All my friends went every year and I was just dying to go,” she recalls. “One day I decided that I would do it. But I remember going up and sitting in Santa’s lap and just blurting out, ‘I want to tell you, I’m Jewish.’” Santa merely shrugged, she says, and handed over her gift, a cardboard suitcase full of paints. “I thought, ‘this is a good stuff.’”

Feikin again told her parents and this time they were not upset, perhaps because rather than sneaking into the party, as she had the pool, she had claimed her identity—“but that was my one trip to the Christmas party,” she says. “I could have gone again, but I didn’t.” She finds it interesting that “I made that admission right away. I guess I was apprehensive about the whole thing, which is why I blurted it out.”

In the memories of those who grew up on the corner in the 1930s and 40s, antisemitism was rarer than one might expect, though the fear and suspicion of being targeted haunted some of their parents. Morty Weiner recalls the time he was coming out of a movie theater on Harford Road during the 1930s and a bunch of older boys standing around the adjacent pharmacy “grabbed me, took my pants, and left me in the park. My parents thought it was antisemitism but it turned out that it was just a joke. They were playing.” For his parents, both Russo-Polish immigrants, the incident may have recalled family stories of old disasters or seemed a frightening echo of events unfolding at the time in Germany.

The most unpleasant experiences seem to have occurred in school. Weiner, for example, recalls being harassed by an antisemitic fifth grade teacher at P.S. 50 on Gorsuch Avenue, a few blocks from his home, where he and another boy were the only Jewish students. “She gave me a hard time,” he said, without elaborating. “But with the exception of this one woman, we had no problems.” Harriet Pollack was hassled in elementary school too, though in her case the tormentors were fellow students. “I was on the heavy side and Jewish and the combination was not too good. I got called all kinds of names.” Boys harassed her, not girls, she says, but the teasing was so bad that she remembers walking home through the alleys “because I was crying. It hurt my feelings.”

Her sister, by contrast, remembers “a teacher giving a little speech about all children being equal” at Gwynns Falls Junior High where, she says, there were a handful of other Jewish kids in the 5th and 6th grades.

In the neighborhood, the fact that Jewish shopowners catered to the needs of their Christian neighbors seems to have insulated them from overt antisemitism. “During the Depression, my father was good to his customers. That’s why we got along so well with them,” says Morty Weiner. “I remember when bread went up to nineteen cents from seventeen cents, my father said, ‘how are people going to afford it?”

The willingness of some Jewish shop owners to look the other way when customers slipped an unpaid item into their bags may also have played a part. In his Clifton Park neighborhood, “there were a couple who did not like Jews,” Weiner says, including one woman whose husband worked for the post office. “He was a lovely man,” recalls Weiner. “But every time she came in the store she would sneak a can of tuna fish in her purse.” His father never confronted the woman about the thefts and instructed him to ignore it also. Similarly, Bernie Raynor recalls the time that a neighborhood woman who was doing housework for his mother took a few eggs. His mother told him not to say anything to her, “because she obviously needed food.”

Close economic and social ties co-existed with an unspoken prohibition that placed certain types of intimacy strictly out of bounds. “There was no contact with [gentile] girls,” says Bernie Raynor. “That was understood”—presumably by both Jewish and gentile teens. As soon as they hit adolescence, most of those profiled here began traveling to school outside their neighborhoods, many to School 49 on Cathedral Street, which had an accelerated curriculum, and then Forest Park High or City College.

Some youths who grew up in non-Jewish neighborhoods traveled far to attend high schools where they could meet other Jews. From the Forest Park High School yearbook, “The Forester,” 1949.

Some youths who grew up in non-Jewish neighborhoods traveled far to attend high schools where they could meet other Jews. From the Forest Park High School yearbook, “The Forester,” 1949.

Attending school outside the neighborhood was how “I first met some Jewish people and had Jewish friends my own age,” Rhea Feikin says. Harriet Pollack recalls, “I had to take three streetcars to get there but I loved Forest Park.” Bernie Raynor’s younger sisters also traveled across town to attend co-ed Forest Park, partly because “there they would have the opportunity to meet Jewish boys.” Raynor, like Morty Weiner, attended Baltimore City College, at that time an all-boys high school. Weiner’s sister went to all-girl Eastern. Desirable as academically elite schools, single sex City and Eastern may have also appealed to Jewish parents nervous about the possibility of interfaith dating.

Despite their childhood friendships with gentile children, none of those profiled here intermarried and all chose to raise their own families in Jewish neighborhoods—striking testimony to the strong sense of Jewish identity instilled by their parents. Perhaps too, those raised in communities where they were outsiders, even accepted outsiders, wanted something different for their own children, even as they acknowledge that their childhoods led them to appreciate diversity and to have friends from varied backgrounds.

Participating in a Jewish youth group was one way to maintain close ties to the Jewish community. Bernie Raynor (middle row, center) belonged to the Rambam Chapter of the American Zionist Association, pictured here in 1946.

Participating in a Jewish youth group was one way to maintain close ties to the Jewish community. Bernie Raynor (middle row, center) belonged to the Rambam Chapter of the American Zionist Association, pictured here in 1946. 2008.117.1

Weiner and his wife Esther lived with his parents on Polk Street for five years after their marriage, but when it was time to buy their first home they moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. There “we became involved with mostly Jewish people but we always had gentile friends,” he says. “Esther and I are very open to that.” Rhea Feikin too “ended up living in a Jewish neighborhood,” and raising her children there. Even so, she says, “I have always had many gentile friends and so did my children.”

Though they made different choices for their own families, none expressed regret at not having grown up in an all-Jewish neighborhood themselves. In fact, most seem thankful for the experience of having had daily interactions with a wide variety of people. “When I talk to my friends who grew up in West Baltimore, they grew up in a ghetto, totally surrounded by other Jewish people,” says Bernie Raynor. “When they went into the service, it was the first time they saw non-Jews. I was fortunate to live in an area where there were a lot of non-Jews.”

Growing up in a gentile neighborhood did not make the corner kids feel any less Jewish than their relatives in Park Heights or Forest Park. “I was expected to get good grades, give to charity, and all that,” says Feikin. Those things were part of being Jewish, as she understood it, and “my parents made me proud of being Jewish.” Friedman concurs, recalling her father saying, “if they call you a Jew, it isn’t a dirty word. It’s not a negative thing.” Though being Jewish clearly set them apart from their neighbors, the corner kids learned young that difference needn’t be a barrier to friendship or understanding—nor to proclaiming a strong and proud Jewish identity.

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