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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 4

Posted on October 9th, 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 IV: Sporting and Cavorting

Miss parts 1-3? Start at the beginning.

Continuity and change have marked social life at Woodholme and Suburban. In the beginning, Suburbanites took the trolley out to the club for Saturday night dances. “It is said that there were some wild moments on the last trolleys back to the city around midnight,” reveals the Suburban Club history. For more sedentary members, card-playing proved popular, with separate card rooms for men and women, a standard country club feature. In 1905 the club found it necessary to make rules “to regulate the play of bridge whist by ladies.” Whatever unruly behavior may have occurred did so in elegant fashion, however, since a strict dress code applied. Home-grown productions entertained members from the start, from a 1911 Minstrel Show by the Suburban Flyers to a poolside fashion show some years later, where “Suburban member-models wore the latest fashions from Hutzler’s, Hochschild’s, and Schleisner’s downtown department stores.” Presumably they had no problem obtaining the right outfits, since the stores were all owned by club members.[1]

In the thirties and forties, the Suburban Club “was THE place to be,” says Mary Louise (“Wheezie”) Gutman. “I can remember we went there every Saturday night, and if you didn’t have a date to go there you were considered a lemon.” The unheated clubhouse closed for the cold months, during which time the Phoenix Club took over as German Jewry’s social center (the two clubs had virtually identical membership rosters). “The Phoenix Club’s china used to go to the Suburban Club for the summer and go back to the Phoenix Club in the winter,” Arthur Gutman relates.[2]

At Woodholme, an initial focus on golf and the nation’s plunge into Depression made for a somewhat slow start for the social scene, but with the building of a new clubhouse in 1948, the club came into its own. In fact, both clubs entered their glory years in the late forties. With the Depression and World War II fading into memory, Americans in the postwar era were in the mood to play, and the two clubs had the means to do it in style. Both hosted a lively round of dances, shows, parties, and games of all sorts. Woodholme was “the hub of athletic and social activities for the membership,” says longtime member Paul Goldberg. “No matter what you did on a Saturday night, you always gravitated back to the club…There was always a band, there was always dancing. It was the place to go.”[3]

Woodholme’s social scene tended to be more casual than Suburban’s, and more open to outsiders. Goldberg, a native East Baltimorean who moved back to the old neighborhood after military service in World War II, splurged on a membership because he wanted to play golf. He knew few Woodholme members, so to fill out his membership application, “I managed to dredge up three or four names of people I knew casually,” he says. “But they took me anyway because I was single.” It was “very, very easy” to get to know people: his first day on the course, the golf pro fixed him up with a threesome just starting out. The atmosphere was of “a small family group,” but one that welcomed new members.

One especially festive winter night in 1958, Harry and Marilyn Meyerhoff hosted a luau, with decorations “flown in from the islands especially for the part,” according to the Baltimore Sun. Birds of paradise, eucalyptus palms, and a thatch-roofed bar set the proper atmosphere. Even the invitations were written in Hawaiian (with English translation); Goldberg recalls going to the Pratt library to look up the words to respond in kind. Female guests came in grass skirts, muumuus, and sarongs, while the men donned “aloha shirts” and straw hats. Mr. and Mrs. Archie Wolfsheimer came dressed as cans of pineapple. Marilyn Meyerhoff’s outfit, described in detail by the Sun, featured “a bra made entirely of orchids.” The party, remembered to this day by many of the guests, cost nearly $10,000, making it “one of Baltimore’s more expensive private parties of the past year or so,” estimated the Sun. The festivities broke up after 3 a.m. Until then, guests dined on, among other things, barbequed shrimp and spare ribs, bacon slices wrapped around Spanish melon, lobster in avocado sauce, crabmeat on buttered toast, and the featured entrée, roast suckling pig.[4]

Sburban Club menu, c. 1958. JMM 1988.218.33a

Sburban Club menu, c. 1958. JMM 1988.218.33a

Not exactly a kosher menu, but neither Woodholme nor Suburban ever worried about such matters. From the Seafood Supreme served at one early Suburban luncheon to the Deluxe Seafood Bar on offer at Woodholme’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2002, the clubs’ chefs have focused on pleasing their members’ taste buds, not reflecting their religious affiliation. In fact, there has been little overtly “Jewish” in the clubs’ policies or daily operations. As the Suburban history points out, “there is no intent stated in the charter, bylaws, or minutes to serve only the Jewish community.” In the mid-1930s, the rabbis of the three Reform congregations asked Suburban officials to close the facilities on Yom Kippur. “The Board decided there was no reason to change longstanding practice and the Club would remain open,” the board minutes relate. However, the board later reversed the policy – and began the practice of giving Reform rabbis complimentary memberships. In later years, the Club offered a Shabbat menu at Friday dinner, “but the few orders received for it brought about its demise,” notes the Suburban history. (Recently, this option has reappeared on the menu, members say.”[5]

There has been one major exception to the lack of “Jewishness” in official club policies. Both Woodholme and Suburban have fostered a sense of communal responsibility, requiring their members not only to contribute to charity, but also to support Jewish philanthropies with at least a portion of their charitable dollars. “If you’re lucky enough to belong to a country club, Suburban member Ann Neumann Libov points out, “you’re lucky enough to give to charity, and especially support the Jewish community.”  AS early as 1927, the suburban board voted to consider charitable contributions in selecting members, and in 1937 required that members contribute at least $50 per year to the Associated Jewish Charities. Today, Suburban members must give a percentage of their dues amount to charity, and at least half of that is expected to go to the Associated or Associated agencies. Woodholme members’ charitable contributions must match their dues amount, and they must also give a certain portion to the Associated.[6]

Suburban Club baseball team, Oct. 1, 1909. Pictured are R. Maisel, Anderson, Goldman, E. Maisel, E. Strouse (Straus?), Parlette, unidentified, Aldridge, M. Strouse (Straus?), Wolf, Fowler, Rodger Pippen, and Zink. JMM 1985.90.19

Suburban Club baseball team, Oct. 1, 1909. Pictured are R. Maisel, Anderson, Goldman, E. Maisel, E. Strouse (Straus?), Parlette, unidentified, Aldridge, M. Strouse (Straus?), Wolf, Fowler, Rodger Pippen, and Zink. JMM 1985.90.19

Nevertheless, country clubs are not charities, their raison d’être is recreation, and sports have featured prominently at both Suburban and Woodholme. In the early 1900s, baseball reigned supreme in America, and every club had its amateur team. The Suburban Club played against other clubs in the area, and the competition as serious – it was not unknown for a team to have one or two non-member “ringers.” While the sport was wildly popular with spectators, it had relatively few participants. In 1928, in a clear sign of the times, the baseball team was dissolved because its diamond was needed for an urgent cause: a parking lot. On the other hand, swimming and tennis drew many players at Suburban, attracted by championship-quality facilities. Suburban produced male and female champions in both sports over the years, including Wheezie Gutman, who in her early twenties won the women’s city tennis championship. She attributes the success of Suburban’s tennis program to “the finest clay courts in Baltimore” and the coaching of the club’s tennis professionals.[7]

The putting green at the Suburban Club, July 1927. JMM 1985.35.5

The putting green at the Suburban Club, July 1927. JMM 1985.35.5

But everywhere, “golf is the anchor of the country club,” as one interviewee put it. Until recently, public golf courses were not very good, so anyone who truly wanted to play had to join a club. At Woodholme, even with today’s high-end public courses, golf is still “the primary lure,” says Paul Goldberg. That’s because of Woodholme’s championship-level course, a challenging 18 holes that serious golfers continue to relish playing. Although a poll was first built in 1938 and tennis enjoyed its moment of glory from the fifties to the eighties, golf has always been the club’s pride and joy. In fact, according to former member Sewell Sugar, “Woodholme evolved from a simple, male-oriented golf club” into a “full blown country club” only over a period of decades.[8]

Male-oriented, that is, until the legendary Evelyn Glick came along. The wife of a Woodholme member, Glick took up golf at age 30 and proceeded to dominate the women’s amateur scene in Maryland from the 1940s to the 1960s. From her base at Woodholme, Glick was the “undisputed queen of the fairways,” reported the Baltimore Sun in 1956. Winner of numerous city, state, and regional championships, she was inducted in to the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977. “Whatever she did, she did full blast,” Sugar recalls.[9]

Continue to Part V: Controversies and Changing Times

Notes:

[1] The Suburban Club, 60-62.

[2] Arthur and Wheezie Gutman interview; The Suburban Club, 63.

[3] “About Our Club” (JMM Vertical Files, courtesy of Woodholme Country Club); Pail Goldberg, phone interview with author, December 2004.

[4] Audrey Bishop, “If Winter Comes – An Indoor Luau,” Baltimore Sun, January 26, 1958.

[5] Suburban Club menu, JMM 1990.233.4; Woodholme anniversary program (JMM Vertical Files, courtesy of Woodholme Country Club); The Suburban Club, 22, 32, 34, 42, 70; various interviews.

[6] The Suburban Club, 44; Ann Neuman Libov, phone interview with author, December 2004; Mitchell Platt, interview with author, December 9, 2004.

[7] The Suburban Club, 73-77; Wheezie Gutman interview.

[8] Sewell Sugar, phone interview with author, December 2004.

[9] Fred Rasmussen, “Evelyn G. Glick, 87, Golfer,” Baltimore Sun, October 18, 1998 (obituary); “Woodholme Club ‘Becomes of Age,’” Baltimore Sun, April 1, 1956; Sugar interview.

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Tennis Everyone!

Posted on June 27th, 2012 by

A blog post by Program Manager Rachel Cylus.

Tennis, Everyone! was a joint program with the Myerberg Senior Center.  The program was based on a documentary and exhibit about African Americans who fought to integrate Druid Hill Park’s clay tennis courts in the 1950s and 60s.  The program was sponsored by Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks – Senior Citizens Division.

In addition to watching part of a short documentary, which interviewed African Americans who recalled playing tennis during the integration of the courts, Harriet Lynn moderated a discussion with three guest speakers.

Jean Powell never really played tennis, yet she was known as the mother of tennis in Baltimore.  She worked for the city for many years, helping to create mobile tennis programs that made use of the many public courts in parks and at schools around the city.  City children could learn the sport and take part in summer and afterschool programs.  It took a bit of pushing to convince the city to invest in tennis.  It is easier, she noted, to put a basketball court in a park or school playground, but, she was convinced that a tennis court could reach as many children with perhaps a more powerful impact.  Powell recalled collecting barely used tennis balls from country clubs around the area and getting generous donations of racquets from Goucher College.  Two of the children impacted by Powell’s tennis program went on to become local pros at clubs in the area.

Sharon Pusin and Chuck Abelson are Jewish Baltimoreans who grew up near Druid Hill Park playing tennis on the courts.  Sharon shared newspaper clippings, pictures and trophies from her competitions.  She remembered having African American doubles partners who were not allowed to compete at some tournaments with her and that she, as a Jewish player, was also discriminated against at some tournaments.

Chuck Abelson never planned to become a tennis player.  He was a child growing up near the park for whom summers meant relaxing and playing with friends around the lake and at the zoo.  One day while goofing around on the tennis courts, he met Maurice (Maury) Schwartz, a local tennis pro and teacher to many.  Maury offered young Chuck the chance to study tennis from him if he was willing to be dedicated and spend his hours practicing.

Tennis, all of the speakers at the event noted, is a sport that requires focus and teaches skills that are applicable in other aspects of one’s life.  Yet for many African Americans in Baltimore and around the country, it was difficult to even have the chance to compete.  The American Tennis Association, founded in 1916 in Washington, DC, is the oldest African American sports association in the country.  It was founded at a time when the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) excluded blacks.  The first ATA National Championship was held in 1917 at Druid Hill Park, which maintained white-only and black-only courts.  The USLTA (later renamed the USTA) was desegregated in the 1950s.  As for the exact date that the courts at Druid Hill Park were desegregated, none of the speakers seemed to have a specific date.  The famous clay courts were torn down sometime in the 1970s.  Today the ATA continues to promote tennis within the African American community.

This event was the first of a three part Salon Series.  Join us for a Hendler’s Centennial Ice Cream Social on Wednesday, July 11 from 1:30 – 3pm at the JMM and don’t forget to sign up for the bus trip to the Jewish Chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis on Tuesday, August 7th.  Spaces are filling fast.

For more information about these programs and others contact Program Manager, Rachel Cylus

rcylus@jewishmuseummd.org or cal 410-732-6400 ext. 215

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