The civil rights history of The National Mall carousel

One of the things I love about Washington is that, without even trying, you can stumble upon history.

Every corner surprises you with another important government agency. What at first seems like an ordinary street suddenly takes on new meaning once you read the bronzed paragraph of an historic marker.

This weekend, one that celebrates both the gains we’ve made and the progress we have yet to achieve in civil rights, was no exception.

Sorry to make those of you back home jealous, but Sunday was a sunny, warm winter day in the District. Not wanting to let the day go to waste, I thought I would go into the city and get some pictures of the preparations for the inauguration so I could show you the behind-the-scenes of what’s going on leading up to the event.

Capitol decorated for the Inauguration

The Capitol decorated for the Inauguration

After clicking some quick photos of the Capitol festooned with American flags, I made my way to the Carousel on the National Mall to meet a friend and her family. From there, we wove through workers setting up viewing stands, fencing and flooring to protect the grass on the mall, strolled past the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, up to the Washington monument, through the World War II memorial and, finally, over to the Lincoln Memorial for the pictures looking back toward the Capitol.

Workers getting the Mall ready for the Inauguration

Workers getting the Mall ready for the Inauguration

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Looking back toward the Washington Monument (with platforms in place for the Inauguration)

On the walk back, my friend’s three-year-old daughter spotted the carousel again, and after the normal parent-toddler negotiations, we stopped so she could have one more ride before we all headed home. We stood outside the carousel’s gates, enjoying winter’s reprieve, watching for her horse to glide by. With each pass, she giggled in delight, screaming “BYE!” and blowing us kisses.

I looked down and noticed the bronzed historical sign below me. This carousel, where families now enjoyed a warm winter day, had ushered in a remarkable event in U.S. civil rights history: The end of segregation at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore.

The historical marker on the carousel on the Mall.

The historical marker on the Carousel on the Mall.

On August 28, 1963, while Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech on the mall, 11-month old Sharon Langley and her dad, Charles, were making history in Baltimore by becoming the first African Americans to ride the carousel at the previously “Whites Only” park. The historical marker indicates it was the product of “nearly a decade” of protests.

Intrigued about the story, I went home and did some research. People started protesting the park in 1955 after Baltimore’s schools were integrated. They started asking, “If our kids can go to school together, why can’t they go to an amusement park together?” (Apparently, the owners fought the idea because they worried it would ruin business.)

The protests went on periodically for eight more years and reached a turning point on July 4, 1963, when police arrested 283 protestors at the park. The arrests, however, didn’t end the protests. Two days later, more protestors showed up, willing to go to jail for what they believed in.

A report by WTOP (a radio station here in D.C.) states that the protests also brought national attention to the park (presumably not the good kind) and, two weeks later, the owners agreed to drop the segregation rules and open the park to all. The first official day black visitors could attend the park was, coincidentally, the same day as the March on Washington.

Sharon and her dad weren’t there as civil rights activists. They were an ordinary American family, enjoying a day at an amusement park who pushed civil rights forward by taking a ride on a carousel.

Gwynn Oak closed after a hurricane in 1972. However, it’s completely serendipitous that the carousel ended up on the mall in 1981, not far from where King inspired a generation to dream for a more harmonious world. The owners had no idea of the carousel’s history until a historian researching the park tracked down the carousel and told them. Since then, the family who owns the carousel identified the exact horse and painted it “Freedom Rider.” If you go to the carousel, you’ll see Sharon’s name inscribed on it.

That story brings me to this weekend. There’s a lot of news I can share since Friday, but I don’t want to give that poor behavior attention. You’ve probably already heard it anyway. Instead, this should be a day where we celebrate the legacy of those who inspired change and challenge ourselves to continue to work for a better future.

Instead of my normal list of important stories, I hope we’ll take this day to reflect on the great contributions of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.). Lewis helped get the new museum established and it delighted me that, in the response to ignorant tweets, his biography sold out on Amazon this weekend.

I also hope we remember there were courageous ordinary citizens whose names and stories we might not know. They didn’t seek fame. They sought to build a country that delivered the promise of liberty and justice for all. May we continue their work to build a world that lives up to Martin Luther King’s dream.

(I’ll be back tomorrow with a wrap-up of the news around Washington. Have a great day!)

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