The year was 1948 and while that great Baltimorean Billie Holliday was still enjoying the fruits of her breakthrough performance at Carnegie Hall, her fellow brothers and sisters were trying to break through the walls of segregation in Druid Hill Park.
The success of Venus and Serena Williams may have sparked an increased level of interest in Black tennis players, but many aren’t aware of the great legacy Blacks have with the sport. Most would remember the likes of Althea Gibson in the 1950’s and Arthur Ashe in the 1970’s. But decades before them were stars like Lula Ballard, Ora Washington, Jimmy McDaniel, Tally Holmes, Lucy Diggs Slowe and others who came out of the American Tennis Association (ATA).
In 1948 the policies of segregation prevented Blacks from utilizing some of the facilities that were set aside for Whites. In tennis, interracial competition was not allowed. Of course, they tried but sure enough park police would remove them. Local players honed their skills on the “Negro” tennis courts in Druid Hill Park, including out-of-towners but soon to be legends, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. But the well kept clay courts at the conservatory in Druid Hill Park were strictly off limits. On Sunday, July 11, 1948 the Baltimore Tennis Club, an all-Black tennis organization, and a local activist group named Young Progressives (an arm of the Progressive Citizens of America, aka Progressive party) staged a interracial tennis match in protest.
The Young Progressives took at first reading what seemed to be the high road and informed the park board that they wanted permits so they could play with Black players. The park board was hell to deal with and dedicated to maintaining separate facilities. After the board noted that they would deny their requests, several of the White players requested permits without indicating their plans. With permits secured, flyers distributed and a sizeable crowd witnessing, the players initiated an event that would help bring additional attention to segregated facilities.
Park authorities attempted to break up the game but the protestors weren’t having it. The tennis players laid and sat down on the courts refusing to move. As such, more than 20 people were arrested. Several were convicted of unlawful assembly, given suspended sentences and probation. While the White protestors who were arrested and convicted may have been given suspended sentences, a number of the Black players lost their jobs. It would take several more years and much effort before the park was fully desegregated in 1955. A plaque honoring the protest is on display near the conservatory.
But was the effort really about leveling the playing field for Blacks or more about using Blacks segregated status to gain attention for the emerging political group, Progressive party? The incident at Druid Hill Park took place two weeks before the party’s national convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The party would later nominate Henry Wallace, former Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt, to run for President. The problem was that most people viewed the group as communists. The Young Progressives were an off shoot of the Progressive party.
With two weeks to go before the national convention, they were looking to create an incident that would draw attention to their party and gain new members. The incident has mostly been told from the perspective of the Young Progressives, positioning them as the focal point instead of the Black players and their segregated status. Media reports from that time constantly mention the 500 spectators that were in attendance to watch this interracial tennis match to give the impression that Whites in sizable numbers were in support of desegregation. But that was not the case.
According to the The Sun, July 12, 1948, “Read the Declaration of Independence”, “This is a free country”, “Is this America or Nazi Germany?”, were some of the spectator rants when police began to arrest the players. These are statements that are aligned with communist phraseology. Furthermore, Whites as a collective did not support Black issues with any fervor that would motivate them to use terms such as stated above. This was a well orchestrated stage play by the Progressive Party who used Black players as nothing more than a supporting cast in their attempt to gain members for their communist inspired platform. Communist Party Chief Philip Frankfeld noted his thoughts on the tennis protest when he said the event would, “bring credit and increased membership to the Progressive party,” according to the book: The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, by Vernon L. Pederson.
Unfortunately, some of the Black protestors who lost their jobs more than likely did so because of their association with an organization most perceived as communist. This incident has been erroneously promoted as an example of Whites standing up for Black causes and breaking down the barriers to equality.
In fact, it has been noted in a number of writings that this incident happened years before the Montgomery bus boycott, as if to say the Druid Hill Park protest were on the same level. Based on an accurate accounting of history, this incident orchestrated by the Young Progressives was less about Blacks and more about an emerging political party seeking attention for their platform. That said, the plaque that should be on display in the park is one with the appropriate size and visibility that truly honors the Black communities’ triumph over segregation and their dedication to the park.
School 18 Project-Discover the History, Culture & Vibe of Historic Park Circle