Critical Mass Reunion: The 1960 Glen Echo Amusement Park Protestors Gather Again
On Thursday, May 17, at the theater in the National Archives building in Washington, DC, a preview was held of a documentary film, clips from a work in progress being produced by filmmaker Ilana Trachtman. The name of the documentary (slated for completion and release next year) is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes: There Ain’t No Back on a Merry-go-round. Gathered for the preview were perhaps 200 people, and among them were some of the activists who had protested at Glen Echo Amusement Park, which billed itself as DC’s “Wonderland of Fun.” Glen Echo Park was named for the nearby small town of Glen Echo, and had been racially segregated since its origins as a chautauqua assembly place, and a rather elaborate one at that. I would go into the history of the chautauqua movement, but this story is about what that chautauqua (a place of liberal learning) became in the early 20th century, when it had failed at its original purpose, in part because it was remote. Some brilliant businessmen bought the property and buildings and began to turn it into an amusement park, naming it after the tiny town across the road (then Conduit Road, now MacArthur Boulevard) near the Potomac River in Montgomery County, Maryland.
By the 1930s Glen Echo referred commonly to the amusement park, not the town next to it, and it had become a fabulous place for fun and, well, amusement. A streetcar line from DC had been built, traversing a very pastoral path out of the city and crossing numerous trestles and bridges to get to the impressive entrance way. Inside the boundaries of the park lay every sort of distraction: The great, wooden Coaster Dip (roller coaster, one of the most terrifying of its time if only because it seemed so rickety), a magnificent merry-go-round, the Cuddle-Up (a kind of level version of what many know today as the Tilt-a-Whirl), a midway section with all sorts of games, the ever-laughing mechanical crazy lady, a ride-through haunted house, a house of mirrors (my particular favorite), a bumper car pavilion, the fantastic Spanish Ballroom, at which live bands (including some famous ones such as Benny Goodman’s) played in the ’30s and later, before being replaced largely by DJs playing popular music, and, for me the crowning glory of my very early childhood (I began being taken to Glen Echo in 1947, when I was two, so I have clear memories of this), the FunHouse, a huge, domed structure containing all sorts of dangerous, crazy rides and features too numerous and arcane to describe here. I remember the interior of that structure as a sort of Götterdämmerung, filled with lights, noise, shrieks, people running around, adults and kids up in the higher parts, riding gravity-driven, brakeless scooter-like things around and around, slowly down, crashing into each other. There were small kid rides outside, the fabulous merry-go-round, games of skill (including a live ammo shooting gallery; try to imagine that in operation today, shooting at painted steel ducks with .22 caliber rifles as crowds of patrons milled around behind the shooters, who could win prizes — and no one ever turned and opened up on the crowd. Go figure.
There was one other fantastic feature: The Crystal Pool, a huge swimming pool with diving boards at various levels, sliding boards one could ride down into the water, an actual man-made beach, a grandstand for voyeurs (I am not making this up) and always, everywhere, all the time, noise. Mechanical noise, shrieking, yakking, yelling, clashing musical sources (each ride had its own insane music), just every sort of thing a young kid, a teenager or a half-crazed adult would love to just wander through and…use. Ride, swim, shoot, play, meet girls (or boys — my bias was girls of course, but I’m sure it worked both ways, same as it does now).
Glen Echo was joyous insanity, on the cheap, for everyone in the DC area, for as long as one could stand it at a stretch. (For reasons of structural unsoundness and recurring injuries and insults of various kinds, the Fun House was closed in 1948 and I miss that bizarre experience to this day).
Of course being “DC’s Wonderland of Fun” was something of a lie, because although there was never any signage advising of the policy, black people were always turned away. The management hired private police (who passed themselves off as Maryland state deputy sheriffs, something that does not exist now and did not then either), to maintain order (which they barely did) and keep out the Negroes (which they did effectively and with gusto).
From the time I was little, growing up poor in inner city DC, the product of a couple of “odd” parents, radicals of their time (especially my mother), and living in an apartment over a store just off 14th Street’s high energy commercial and entertainment corridor a short distance up the hill from U Street and just West of The Other Side of 14th (two dividing lines established by Jim Crow law in the city), I often would ask my mother “Where are all the kids?” I had white friends at my white school, but had to have “separate but equal” explained to me, as well as Jim Crow, mostly by my mother, who was passionate about these matters, unlike my father, who back then believed it would all just work itself out if we’d only not rock the damn boat. Both had black friends socially, but my mother was serious about it, and at the grand Tivoli Theater a half block from our quarters (shared with my crazy, apocalyptic hillbilly maternal grandmother), my mom would always guide me to the left in the lobby (we went to the movies at least once a week, often more) past the sign pointing to the stairway that led to the balcony and had an arrow pointing to the stairs with the word “Colored.” So yeah, most of the time we sat up there, and I loved it because the balcony, for god’s sake! It was a great (and very different) viewing angle, and it was fun up there because not only was it different, but the folks up there seemed to be more into the movie that might be playing, laughed more and louder, were more loose about everything. It felt like home up there. I had no idea the neighbors (a crazy-quilt collection of hillbillies, career drunks, immigrants of all persuasions — except, of course, black, because that would be going too far) largely thought there was something wrong with my mother, as in “not right in the head.” Well, maybe they were right, but I am inclined to believe it was the other way around.
All this is by way of prologue, the way the Shakespeare quote on the front of the National Archives building puts it: “The past is prologue.” In this case, prologue to the summer of 1960, the year I was radicalized first by a week at a church youth retreat (read: excuse to run amok at the beach) as we were taken to visit a migrant worker camp in Delaware, and what I saw and heard there left me in a state of shock. Was this not the United States of America? How could people have to live that way? How could they be exploited that way? How could they be forced to live in chicken coops and lean-tos and pick beans and live in filth and disease and not be compensated enough for their trouble to even pay a doctor for…never mind. The Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement both grabbed my that week, at age 15, I discovered “others” I would never have seen on the street, black and brown, adults and children, working in beanfields near the glorious beach city where I spent at least a week every year, not unlike Glen Echo, but a whole city, next to the Atlantic Ocean. This experience preceded by a few months the broadcast of Edward R. Murrow’s expose about this situation, on CBS News, a horror story titled Harvest of Shame. I was already all in, and before Harvest of Shame was broadcast, just weeks after my migrant worker epiphany (and several other epiphanies my church group had not planned on), came the protest at Glen Echo, a place I had often asked about, somewhat reduntantly, “Where is everybody else?”
For me, “everybody else” was those who were missing. Missing from my classrooms at school, missing from the glorious beach weeks each year at Ocean City, MD, missing from my neighborhood (except as service workers who had best run to and from their menial jobs at sunup and sundown to avoid being shaken down by the beat cop for walking while black).
Once again my church was at fault for my being involved, this time because the Reverend A.C. Young had connected with people from a largely Jewish community, Bannockburn, which also abutted Glen Echo, and whose residents sympathized with the unwelcome Negroes, and a group of some of those Negroes (including a number of students from Howard University) who had formed an activist group called “NAG” (Non-violent Action Group) had come together to stage a protest at the park to try and put an end to this cruel craziness. Rev. Young and some of the converts from the Delaware experiment (me included, of course, for there was now no going backward) signed on as well. Some kids from Wilson High School in DC also did (and my best friend at the time would be attending Wilson, and often attended my church with me anyway, because we had some really fine girls at my church, let’s be clear, there was that to consider at age 15, too). Some of my assorted black friends from DC (Coolidge High School) who wanted to attend Howard, and so we all showed up on the appointed day, which was, if memory serves me, June 30, 1960, and some of us (the white ones) served as “allies” and crossed the picket lines into the park to buy tickets for rides (the tickets were like currency and could be used for any ride, game or attraction in the park), then passed them back to the black protestors who would take the big plunge and walk, for the first time, onto the sacred ground of Glen Echo Park.
One of those young black men (all college age, and so held in awe by me), was Dion Diamond, who had been carrying on his own personal protests since the 1950s, at first by himself at Arlington, VA, lunch counters, and this eventually led to others joining in and was the basis for NAG’s formation. So Dion Diamond was there that day, as were about 15 other black Howard students, a number of Jewish locals who had boycotted the park for a while, and we allies were back at work passing tickets to the black men who would make history that day and begin the eventual downfall (because of the incredibly stubborn park owners) and eventual rebirth of Glen Echo Park. For them (a couple of Jewish brothers) it was strictly a sound business decision, but to those of us who were doing a new thing that day, it was blasphemy.
There was no violence that day, because NAG members were not going to allow it to devolve into a mess. They won, though it was not obvious at the time. Several of them made their way to the merry go round, and were confronted by one of the fake “sheriff’s deputies,” Frank Collins, who ordered them off. When they refused to move, a bizarre and historic conversation took place. It was captured by a radio reporter and is now iconic:
F. Collins [FC]: Are you white or colored?
L. Henry [LH]: Am I white or colored?
FC: That’s correct. That’s what I want to know. Can I ask your race?
LH: My race? I belong to the human race.
FC: All right. This park is segregated.
LH: I don’t understand what you mean.
FC: It’s strictly for white people.
LH: It’s strictly for white persons?
FC: Uh-hum. It has been for years…
LH: You’re telling me that because my skin is black I cannot come into your park?
FC: Not because your skin is black. I asked you what your race was.
LH: I would like to know why I cannot come into your park.
FC: Because the park is segregated. It is private property.
LH: Just what class of people do you allow to come in here?
FC: White people.
LH: So you’re saying you exclude the American Negro?
FC: That’s right.
LH: Who is a citizen of the United States?
FC: That’s right.
LH: I see.
After that brief and confounding exchange (remember, there was no written policy anywhere to the effect the park was segregated, it just was) nothing would ever be the same. First, Collins arrested five carousel riders, all black, for “trespassing.” Look here:
In all, five protesters were arrested that day, on the spot, for “trespassing”: William L. Griffin, Cecil T. Washington, Jr., Marvous Saunders, Michael A. Proctor, and future Maryland State Senator Gwendolyn Greene (Britt). The next day (and for the rest of that summer) they all would be back. My friends and I would return sporadically, because at age 15 none of us owned cars (or had driver’s licenses). But NAG members and the coalition of Jewish sympathizers were there on the daily. The next year a number of them would be on the buses that started the Freedom Riders phenomenon. Dion Diamond was one of those.
It should be noted that not long after the initial protest there were counter protesters, people recruited by the American Nazi Party, a group Dion Diamond had already encountered during his lunch counter sit ins in Arlington, which was home also to the American Nazi Party. I remember the confoundment and rage I felt at seeing them there, but then this happened and totally destroyed the Nazi presence:
At the May 17 event (coincidentally the 64th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS, a handful of veterans of the protests were present, including two Jews, one Quaker (all from the Bannockburn neighborhood), and “Crazy” Dion Diamond, who had been the spark plug for NAG. There were some more of us in the audience, and we were asked to stand and be recognized.
It was a strange feeling after all these years of activism to be in the company of what I back then (and still today) regarded as giants, as people I wanted to be like or maybe even somehow be.
At the end of the presentation and discussion there was a question and answer session for people in the audience, and one gentleman, who directed his question at Dion Diamond, to the effect “Why did this all start when it did? What caused it to happen then instead of sooner?” As Diamond tried to answer the question I facepalmed, because the gentleman asking obviously had no awareness of the history of the movement, or how it started, who the players were, or the timeline as it had unfolded. It is difficult to answer in academic terms. My partner, who was present and shook her head as I slapped mine, said to me “Critical mass.”
Critical mass. The simplest, perfect explanation, from someone far too young to have been there, but who has been paying attention all her life.
Rosa Parks, anybody? The subsequent bus boycott of 1955 that set off the Civil Rights Movement and drew in Dr. Martin Luther King? Sister Rosa didn’t set out to start a movement. She simply did not feel like moving, and there was the critical mass moment that led to a movement.
But it was also “crazy” people like Dion Diamond, who went out on his own a couple years prior to the Montgomery bus boycott. It was boiling under the surface, but it required the self-described “craziness” of people like Diamond to push the thing up to the breaking point, to make it reach critical mass.
But what became of Glen Echo Park, then? Well something did. It was finally closed after seven years of integration, in 1968, and the property changed hands several times before finally being taken over by the National Park Service and turned into a center for arts, dancing, creative activities of all kinds, something like, yes, a chautauqua all over again. The majority of the surviving structures have been restored, though not the rides. People sometimes hold weddings in what was the bumper car pavilion. The ancient and terrifying Coaster Dip is mercifully gone, but the glorious Spanish Ballroom is the site of dances regularly, there are artists making and selling art, and the very air there is redolent with history. It is a glorious respite from the world, the Fun House madhouse long gone, and it is mostly quiet there now, but there are voices, there are spirits, and over by the beautifully restored Merry Go Round, one might sometimes, in a quiet moment, hear “I’m a member of the human race.”
So are we all, and at Glen Echo Park one may feel extremely human, surrounded by the spirits of giants who once dared walk upon that sacred ground. And as one of those giants said this past Thursday, “The fight is far from over.”
We are about to reach critical mass once again.
Epilogue: Upon leaving out into the pouring rain on Pennsylvania Ave., a familiar-looking gentleman accosted me and said he remembered me, and said “Thank you for standing up.” I don’t know his name, but I do know that he offered my partner and me one of the two umbrellas he and his wife had. That was perhaps the most touching moment of the whole evening, that a man I had encountered nearly 60 years ago would not only recognize me, but give us an umbrella to keep us dry, then disappear into the rain. Whoever you are, sir, thank you for being an angel for us that rainy night. You epitomize everything good about people.