Freedom School Scholar Harry Clarke reflects on the story of Glen Echo Amusement Park as part of his preparation to host the National Youth Summit on Freedom Summer in February 2014.
On a cool late summer afternoon, I had the privilege of leaving the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., and the museum to go to Glen Echo Amusement Park to learn about its fascinating history in the Civil Rights movement and to meet Joan Mulholland, a civil rights activist who protested in the integration of the park and would go on to participate in the Freedom Rides.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Glen Echo was a D.C. area institution, drawing thousands of people to the park every day during the summer season. There were no laws demanding segregation, but it was the practice in the park. That changed in the summer of 1960 when protesters, a mix of white and African American students and members of the local community, came together to fight injustice and desegregate the iconic park.
Protester Lawrence Henry from Howard University was confronted by the park's private security guard on the carousel
The protest began when activists, including Mulholland and students from Howard University, entered the park and attempted to ride the carousel. A private security deputy confronted one of the African Americans students and demanded he leave, setting off a chain of events leading to a summer long protest. From 2:00-10:00 PM each and every day, young people and residents from the neighboring community picketed outside all entrances to the park.
Tensions ran high that summer, with counter picketers including members of the American Nazi party forming a protest of their own. Despite verbal abuse, taunts, and thrown projectiles, those fighting for integration remained non-violent. "Are you wearing your non-violence today?" was the curious way of asking if a protester was ready to face the tension and abuse of the picket line and it was the quote that stuck with me most from Mulholland's recollection of the Glen Echo story.
Glen Echo was integrated for the 1961 season, and although it closed in 1968 due to financial turmoil, it was reopened as a national park in 1971 to serve the local community and to commemorate the civil rights struggles of the summer of 1960.
After Glen Echo, Mrs. Mulholland and other activists who had trained there would go on to be heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, including the Freedom Rides, and the Freedom Summer of 1964, the focus of my project at the museum.
In preparation for the National Youth Summit on the Freedom Summer this coming February, my fellow interns and I have been learning about the role of college students and young people like Joan in the narrative of the movement in hopes of making those lessons accessible to young people today.
Harry Clarke is a Freedom School Scholar at the National Museum of American History and a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi. He has also blogged about integrating the University of Mississippi. Teachers, don't forget to pre-register for the National Youth Summit on Freedom Summer.