One of the cornerstones of African-American history and life in Baltimore will be 150 years old in October. Druid Hill Park was originally developed as part of a major urban parks initiative in the late 19th century. To celebrate the green oasis in the heart of urban life, Tree Baltimore, a division of the Department of Parks and Recreation; The Friends of Druid Hill Park, a local cooperative; and Cathy Allen, the green ambassador, have teamed up to plant 150 new trees in the park on Oct. 9. The plan is to enhance the tree canopy on the Zoo Mansion House lawn and replace older, dying trees around the park with saplings.

Allen, who frequently visits the park with her two young children and lives in close proximity, is excited about the celebration of the history of the park and the initiative to plant more trees. She calls it “green goodness.”

“Just think, 150 years ago my ancestors could not fully enjoy this park, they were usually working in some capacity,” said Allen. “Here I am today, an African-American woman, heading up a major planting initiative.”

What Allen alludes to is federally mandated racial segregation during the Jim Crow era. There were no laws in place to stop Black Baltimoreans from enjoying the amenities at the park. However, the facilities available, separate from their White counterparts, provided the initial steam in the engine to help bring an end to a racially-motivated injustice.

Tennis courts at Druid Hill Park provided the backdrop for a civil rights protest against segregation by young athletes. According to reports in a 1950 edition of the AFRO, a group of 22 tennis players, Black and White, were arrested in 1948 for attempting to play an interracial tennis tournament. “The park policy wouldn’t allow us to play. It wasn’t the law. It was the policy, and the policy said no interracial sports on the court,” said Mitzi Swan, one of the original players, in a 2003 interview. Swan also mentioned that the tennis court for Black players was “overgrown with weed and ruts,” a far cry from the “separate but equal” mandate upheld by the Supreme Court at the time. The event put Baltimore on the national map of the civil rights movement, which gained full steam in the 1960s.

On Oct. 16 Allen plans to plant trees at the site of a now defunct segregated pool and dedicate those trees to prominent African Americans in Baltimore. “These trees are living monuments, and this is monument city,” she said. “But instead of taking away from the earth, we are giving back and honoring the earth. I am happy to be a part of history.”

The trees to be planted will also become a part of that history. “Druid Hill has some of the oldest trees in the state. Some of the big oaks are about 100 years old,” said Anne Draddy, author of Druid Hill Park: The Heart of Historic Baltimore and director of Tree Baltimore. “We are planting these trees for generations to come, so that in 150 years there will be shade and cooler air in Druid Hill Park.”

Draddy said everyone can participate in the sustainable effort by purchasing a tree from the Friends of Druid Hill Park website or volunteering to help plant a tree. “There will be experienced tree planters on hand to teach people how to plant them. The species and spots where we will plant are all planned, it’s not random,” she said.

The planting is all part of a 20-year tree master plan for every large park in Baltimore City. Local Boy Scout troops have adopted the Tree Baltimore initiative, and will earn a conservation badge by helping to plant trees in the park to help celebrate the anniversary,

“Druid Hill is the third oldest park of its kind in the country,” said Draddy. New York City’s Central park was developed in 1858 and Fairmount Park in Philadelphia began with a group of private citizen’s desire for public green space around 1855.

Druid Hill’s 745-acres is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Melissa Jones

Special to the AFRO