James Crockett helped make history in Baltimore.
A veteran real estate entrepreneur in the city since 1956, he has owned a home on Liberty Heights in Northwest Baltimore since the 1950’s. Baltimore was a different place then. Or perhaps it changed because of the work of people like him, his colleagues and scores of others who trod along the trail blazed by people like Thurgood Marshall, Juanita Jackson and Clarence Mitchell, Jr.
“In 1944, when I was still in high school we were picketing Ford’s Theater,” Crockett said, referring to the theater at 320 W. Lafayette Street, downtown, which was established in 1870. The theater relegated Blacks to its second balcony until 1952. Protests there were the first in an ongoing series that Crockett participated in with an interracial group of activists known as “the Young Progressives of Maryland.”
In the summer of 1948, the group took aim at the segregated clay tennis courts at venerable Druid Hill Park.
“White people would play on the clay courts at 7 o’clock in the morning on Sunday, then they would go to church. So, the courts were open, and we got together to play some tennis,” Crockett said. “The first couple of times nothing happened, then the word got out that the integration group was playing tennis on the clay courts.”
That’s when the Department of Recreation and Parks, then known as the Bureau of Recreation, sent the Park Police out to break up the interracial matches with little resistance from the Progressives. But, the group had a plan.
“We had to have a vehicle that would get the attention of the people in charge,” Crockett said.
That vehicle was an incendiary flier boldly announcing their intention to participate in an interracial tennis match on July 11,1948.
“KILL JIM CROW! DEMAND YOUR RIGHTS! Organize to smash discrimination in recreational facilities,” the flier read.
In addition to the flier, the civil rights agitators sent a less provocative, formal letter to Harold Callowhill, superintendent of the Bureau of Recreation.
“The Young Progressives of Maryland are planning a tennis outing at Druid Hill Park on Sunday, July 11. As you probably know, membership in the Young Progressives is open to all regardless of race, color or creed. We have been advised by legal opinion that there is no law providing for segregation on the tennis courts,” the letter dated July 3, 1948 read.
Ultimately, the message was received by the powers that be and those who shared the values and beliefs of the Young Progressives.
About 2 p.m. on July 11, 1948, hundreds of people were lined up along the clay courts when four young women: Mary Coffee and Gloria Stewart, who were Black, and Mitzi Freishat and Jeanette Fino, who were White, lined up for a mixed race doubles match. But before a ball was served, Baltimore Park Police, who had been hovering on a hillside, swooped down on the players and broke up the demonstration.
In all, 22 people, Black and White, were arrested, taken to the Baltimore Police’s Northern District Station and charged with rioting, conspiracy to riot or disturbing the public peace. Seven people were convicted.
It was the first case in Maryland where Blacks and Whites, together, initiated a lawsuit alleging that both groups’ rights were being violated by Jim Crow laws, according to Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor and Thurgood Marshall scholar.
The fracas at Druid Hill Park even got the attention of legendary journalist H.L. Mencken, who devoted what many believe was his last column for The Evening Sun, to the clash on the clay courts. And the notorious curmudgeon took a position that shocked those who believed Mencken to be racist and ant-Semitic.
On Nov. 9, 1948, he wrote in The Evening Sun:
“Certainly it is astounding to find so much of the spirit of the Georgia Cracker surviving in the Maryland Free State, and under official auspices…It is high time that all such relics of Ku Kluxry be wiped out in Maryland…The Park Board rule is irrational and nefarious. It should be got rid of forthwith.”
Ultimately, the efforts of Crockett and the other Young Progressives on the clay courts fell short in a court of law.
The tennis protesters merged with the “Easterwood Professionals,” an interracial basketball team coached by Crockett, as well as two golfers, in the case of Boyer v. Garrett, which sought to desegregate recreational facilities in Baltimore. They lost in U.S. District Court in 1948 and lost a subsequent appeal in 1950.
But, the city park board voted to integrate recreation facilities in 1955, a year after Brown v. Board was rendered. The Young Progressives disbanded shortly after the 1948 decision.
“Our activism was taken away from us,” Crockett said. “We had to apply our energy in different directions…It’s a shame because we enjoyed being together.”