Historic Tennis Match that Helped End Segregation Commemorates 60 Years

Historic Tennis Match that Helped End Segregation Commemorates 60 Years

There was a time when the beautiful grounds and facilities of Druid Hill Park were marred by segregation along racial lines. Sixty years ago, one protest match did something to change that.

In honor of that event, the Department of Recreation and Parks hosted “24–Love: The 60th Anniversary of the Historic Tennis Match in Druid Hill Park” at the Howard Pete Rawlings Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” said 78-year-old Mitzi Swan, who was arrested for the 1948 protest, “I didn’t realize the historical significance at the time. We just did what we thought was the right thing to do,” Swan was joined by local tennis great Nellie Briscoe Gardner, Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings Blake, and NAACP Baltimore Branch President Marvin “Doc” Cheatham. “This demonstration was an important chapter in the stormy end to segregation,” said Mayor Sheila Dixon, “It is also a very significant part of Baltimore’s civil rights history.” The event included a cocktail party, testimonials, and a re-enactment of the historic event, (minus the arrests).

The motive for the protest in 1948 was a policy enacted by Recreation and Parks segregating the tennis courts while violating the 1896 US Supreme Court ruling of Plessey v. Ferguson of separate but equal. “White-only” courts were well maintained while “colored-only” courts suffered deplorable conditions. This resulted in white players inviting the black players onto their courts. However, blacks were always evicted by monitoring Park Police who strictly enforced the policy.

White players who were members of the Young Progressives, an independent political party that supported the civil rights movement, decided to organize a protest against the policy.
They recruited members from the all-black Baltimore Tennis Club to participate in the protest. Local media, city officials and police districts were all notified of the upcoming action.

A body of four black and four white protestors, men and women in equal number, entered the white-only courts to begin play. They were immediately arrested by Park Police and taken to the Baltimore City Police Northern District Precinct. Additional arrests were made of protestors who were stationed at the precinct as a part of the overall strategy. There was a disparity in the reported numbers of witnesses to the event: The Baltimore Sun reported 200, while the Afro-American Newspaper reported 500.

Not all Baltimoreans were received the protest well. “Reactions were mixed. Mostly it was negative,” said Swan, who was also a Young Progressive. According to Swan, the protest drew particular condemnation from then Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro, Jr., father of current U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called it “communist inspired.” There were some legal and political repercussions, including players, some of whom were teachers, being fired from their positions. In spite of the backlash, three years later the Recreation and Parks tennis courts segregation policy was terminated.

Six years after the protest, NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall argued and won Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall was another Baltimorean who made a mark in civil rights history.