On July 11, 1948, on what is now a manicured meadow of grass beside the Rawlings Conservatory in Druid Hill Park, four men and four women, Black and white, gathered on a lcomplex of clay tennis courts — now long gone — to protest a park policy that segregated players on separate courts. Their act of protest was simply to play a friendly game of tennis.

The weather in 1948 was nearly the same as it was earlier this week, a hot sunny day near 90 degrees. The night before, members of a civil rights group called the Young Progressives of Maryland and the NAACP requested permission from park officials for a racially mixed group of players to compete on courts designated for whites only. The request was denied, and park officials warned the group that police would be summoned if the interracial match was played.

The tennis players defied park policy and showed up the next day at 2 p.m. and began playing on three clay courts. This was not the first time the Young Progressives, a predominantly Jewish activist group, organized interracial matches at the courts, but none had attracted much notice. This time, the group made their intentions known in advance, so hundreds of supporters gathered, along with police.

According to a news account published the next day by The Baltimore Sun, police ordered the players to cease playing three times. In response, players sat on the court and refused to leave. Police carried them off and arrested them before other protesters took their place. In the end, police arrested 24 people, including four others who protested at the police station, and charged them with refusing to obey a police officer and disorderly conduct. Of the 24, 13 were Black and two were minors.

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A sign noting the site where in 1948 Black and white tennis players protested the policy segregating tennis courts in Druid Hill Park. (Hugo Kugiya)

The Sun reported the protest included 500 onlookers, some of whom shouted, “They have a right to play,” and “This is a free country … read the Declaration of Independence … Is this America or Nazi Germany?” They booed the police and shouted, “We all pay taxes ... we fought a war for democracy,” and started singing “America the Beautiful.”

Stanley Askin, state director of the Young Progressives, then 26, was among those arrested. He told The Sun: “Discrimination against the Negro people means discrimination against Jews, Catholics, and all minorities. Segregation is a policy used to divide the people, and results in inferior living conditions and recreational facilities for all.”

The collective act of defiance was one of many big and small that collectively created the Civil Rights Movement. Teisha Dupree-Wilson, an assistant professor of history at Coppin State University, said the event was notable because it included both white and Black protesters.

“For the Young Progressives to take this on was important,” said Dupree-Wilson, who teaches African American history, among other courses. “It’s not enough for Black or brown folks to say this is wrong; everyone has to say this is wrong. That packed more punch in 1948.”

The stark segregation of the time comes as a surprise to her students, she said, many of whom are not aware that Jim Crow laws existed in Baltimore.

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“The tentacles of Jim Crow extended into every single arena,” Dupree-Wilson said. “It even extended into the ocean. There was a white part of the beach and a Black part of the beach. ... Black waves and white waves. Most don’t tend to think of Baltimore as a Southern city, but it was. It’s just way up south.”

Sentiment to integrate sports was already building — Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in Major League Baseball a year earlier — but it would be six years before the doctrine of “separate but equal” would be struck down by the Supreme Court (a decision that did not immediately end segregation), and seven years before Baltimore officially integrated its park facilities.

Tim Almaguer, in charge of community engagement for the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, said the protest was not the only attempt to “force the issue” of segregation in the parks. Residents also organized interracial basketball tournaments, he said, pointing out that the policy was not law and could not be legally enforced. Most of the charges filed against the protesters were dropped.

Today, a sign posted along Beechwood Drive recounting the events of 1948 is the only visible reminder of the protest. The clay courts were removed in 1989 and no trace of them remains. Druid Hill’s main tennis complex is on the other side of the park, 10 courts in a state of disrepair, with weeds growing through cracks in the playing surface. The courts formerly designated for Black players still stand, close to the center of the park next to the old segregated swimming pool, which is now filled in with dirt as part of a memorial art exhibit. The courts are still used.

The former “Black courts” in Druid Hill Park on July 14, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Even after the city integrated the parks, Black players favored the old courts, which were home to the Baltimore Tennis Club, one of a handful of Black tennis clubs on the East Coast. Members helped form the American Tennis Association, which represented all the country’s Black tennis clubs and therefore the country’s best Black players. Druid Hill also hosted the first ever national tournament of Black tennis clubs. African-American tennis greats like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe played there as juniors.

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Today, the surfaces of the courts are uneven and worn down, their condition belying the history and significance of the matches played there. That should improve by next year, according to Adam Boarman, who is in charge of capital development for the parks department. The city received $275,000 in federal funding to resurface the courts, install new posts and nets, and repair fencing.

“That could happen this year or early in 2024,” Boarman said.

hugo.kugiya@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times. 

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