“Through its embrace of Black artistry, even segregation could not stop the influential talent of Black artists and their impact on this historical icon at Park Circle!”
Like many facilities of the segregation era, Carlin’s did not allow Blacks. It wasn’t until the late fifties, after the amusement park had reached its zenith did park management begin to entertain desegregation.
When it did, owner John J. Carlin had died; a series of fires had destroyed a portion of the park; Blacks were gaining political ground in NW Baltimore, and park management were trying to lure the proposed Baltimore Civic Center to Park Circle. In fact, its negotiation to get the Civic Center may have had a significant impact on management flirting with the idea of desegregation.
A couple of writers have noted that Carlin’s did desegregate their pool in the 1950’s but no record of that was found when researching for this article. In fact, in 1963, when CORE(Congress of Racial Equality) were organizing demonstrations to integrate NW Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Park it was also eyeing Carlin’s. Still defiant, Carlin’s management was only willing to bow to the pressure if other competing facilities desegregated.
John Carlin had always kept a watchful eye on integration even before he opened his amusement park. As a housing developer he once asked the courts for an injunction against a homeowner that was willing to sell his property to “colored people”. This was an all White neighborhood that Carlin was developing and a sale to Blacks would hinder possible sales to Whites. This also was right after the first decade of the 1900’s when Baltimore had put forth segregation ordinances (1910-1913) that effectively controlled where Blacks could live or invest in property.
Jewish and gentile families who grew up in the Park Circle area can hardly reminisce on their upbringing without mentioning Carlin’s Park. It was a central refuge for fun and entertainment. But while the park was segregated, it did allow for Blacks to entertain its patrons.
A host of novelty acts and very talented musicians performed at Carlin’s including, Maud Mills, sister of Harlem’s famed performer, Florence Mills; Tiny Parham, Elmer Calloway(brother of Cab), Ike Dixon, The Ambassadors, Harold Stepteau and Billy Fowler Orchestra, among others.
Black music’s impact on Carlin’s was so great that the entertainment facility held a contest in the 1930’s to determine the best Negro orchestra. Like many of its compatriots, it found no irony in refusing to allow Blacks in its facilities, yet embracing its entertainers.
Carlin’s was also the setting for some of the scenes in a movie entitled “Pie Eatin Champeens” in 1928, which featured Elizabeth Mason, a 6yr old African American girl playing the part of Farina. According to the Baltimore Afro, the film was part of a talent search to replace “Little Rascal” characters. As they got older, other actors would replace them.
(Gallery of some of the Black artists that performed at Carlin's)
In 1945, Broadway actor (played Bigger Thomas in Richard Wrights Native Son adaptation); musician, athlete, and human rights advocate Canada Lee, made a speech at Carlin’s for the CIO Labor Day Rally. Lee’s talent and overall views were much like Paul Robeson. In fact, the FBI tried to get him to publically call Paul Robeson a communist. This is a quote from his speech at Carlin’s: “And as colored people have died on foreign soil for the liberties of other peoples, I propose to die here with my blood running red on the cobble stones of America for the principles that I have believed in.” (Baltimore Afro, 1945)
But ‘everyday’ Blacks would not be as fortunate as Canada Lee and others. In 1951, Black employees at the park for company picnics and family outings were routinely denied admission to the park. “A reported mistake in the sale of tickets to the annual family outing of Local 678 UAW-CIO was discovered yesterday when approximately 200 Negroes showed up at Carlin’s Amusement Park.”(Baltimore Afro, August 19, 1951). The article would go on to note refunds were given to all the “Negro” employees before ultimately being escorted from the park.
Another instance of Carlin’s embrace of Black artistry was boxing. Fighters like Louis "Cocoa Kid"(Herbert Lewis Hardwick) fought at Carlin’s before thousands of spectators in the 1930’s. Cocoa Kid was one of the infamous Murderer’s Row boxers and the colored welterweight champ. Murderer’s Row was the name given to a number of Black fighters that White and Black champions intentionally avoided. As such, they made a name for themselves by fighting each other and whoever else was willing to challenge them. Sugar Ray Robinson was one who feared and stayed clear of Cocoa. But Cocoa like his fellow Murderer’s Row crew made the most of his career. He fought a number of times at Carlin’s Park defeating fighters like Jimmy Leto, Chalky Wright, Johnny Lucas and Jack Portney.
The night Kid Chocolate came to town
In 1937 top flight boxer Kid Chocolate(Eligio Sardinas Montalvo) a.k.a The Cuban Bon Bon fought Charley Gomer at Carlin’s Park with thousands in attendance. Chocolate learned his fighting ways in his native Cuba partly by watching films of other fighters. He moved to the states in the late 1920’s and began to make a name for himself as one of the top fighters in the game. In 1931, he became Cuba’s first world boxing champion which started his ascension. Kid Chocolate was so good most of his losses were to future hall of fame fighters including Tony Canzoneri and Jack “Kid” Berg. When he fought Gomer at Carlin’s he was at the end of his career. That noted, Kid Chocolate still put on a dazzling performance. With combinations and uppercuts consistently landing to Gomer’s jaw, Kid Chocolate would stun his opponent but couldn’t put him away. The champ would go on to win a dominant 10 round decision.
Segregated or not, Carlin’s Park has a tremendous history in Baltimore. Its history is typically written in a way that makes Black people invisible. But through its embrace of Black artistry, even segregation could not stop the influential talent of Black artists and their impact on this historical icon at Park Circle!
C.Green for School 18 Project