Before the Freedom Rides, before the March on Washington and “I Have a Dream,” before the Civil Rights Act, before any of that, there was Glen Echo Amusement Park.
In 1960, Glen Echo park was a popular summer destination in Montgomery County, known for its carousel. It was owned by the Jewish Baker brothers. It was also for whites only.
But that summer, students from Howard University, a historically black college, and residents of the nearby Bannockburn neighborhood in Bethesda — many of whom were Jewish — banded together to demonstrate for the integration of the park.
This early civil rights protest was recalled at the National Archives on May 17 at an event co-sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
“Washington, D.C., the capital of America, the country that stands for justice, equality and, here it is, right outside of this capital you’ve got this great hypocrisy,” said one of those demonstrators, Hank Thomas, in an unfinished documentary about the protests, “Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round.”
Filmmaker Ilana Trachman, who showed a six-minute clip from her documentary — named for a line in a Langston Hughes poem — moderated a discussion with four members of the 1960 demonstrations. The four — there were more in the audience of about 200 — called their participation in the protest life-changing. One of them, Dion Diamond, came from segregated Fredericksburg to attend Howard University. He was an 18-year-old freshman when he joined the protests.
“I started school as a physics major,” he said. “But after Glen Echo and the Freedom Ride I wanted to find out why it took 100 years from the Emancipation Proclamation to these protests. I changed my major to history and sociology.”
The protest began on June 30, when 12 Howard students, calling themselves the Nonviolent Action Group, rode the carousel they were banned from using. Five, all black, were arrested.
Neighborhood resident Joanne Delaplaine was 7 when she joined her mother, Esther Delaplaine, on the picket line. It became a formative memory and inspired a life of activism.
“I like to say at age 7 I had my first taste of a political win,” Joanne Delaplaine told the National Archives audience. “And I wanted more.”
Esther Delaplaine, now 94, “was one of many Bannockburn mothers who brought children in strollers to stand in picket lines holding homemade signs in the air in the summer heat,” The Gazette wrote in 2010, the 50th anniversary of the protests. “She made sure the picket line was always staffed with picketers from 2 to 10 p.m. daily and opened her house to protesters for food and water breaks.”
Panelist Helene Berleant Ageloff, who is Jewish, was 25 during the Glen Echo protests. She said part of the reason she joined the picket line was the memory of the Holocaust and what some of her family members in Europe had gone through.
She also told a story about the time she was shopping in a store in Dupont Circle, and when she went to pay she walked to the end of the line, where several African Americans were standing. As she did, they moved out of the way to let her pay first.
That moment stuck with her.
“Why should I get to be at the front of the line ahead of all those people?” she said. “I always remembered it.”
After Glen Echo, she went on to join the Freedom Ride to New Orleans to protest segregation in public waiting areas and restaurants.
Tension between black and white protesters
Glen Echo was not only an early civil rights protest, it was one of the first that those on the panel could remember in which blacks and whites joined together, a fact they also credited with its success. Some of the residents of Bannockburn had tried unsuccessfully to integrate Glen Echo before 1960, Esther Delaplaine said, by petitioning the Montgomery County Council and boycotting the park. She credited the Howard students for taking the lead and tipping the scales.
Bannockburn was known at the time as a liberal Jewish neighborhood, in part because discriminatory housing covenants prohibited Jews from living in other areas.
Esther Delaplaine, who is Quaker, said her family moved to the neighborhood precisely because of its reputation as liberal and Jewish.
“We had been warned,” she said, referring to what was considered the undesirability of the Jewish residents. “Did we know the neighborhood was Jewish? Yes, we sure did.”
In Trachman’s film, Thomas said it was at the Glen Echo protests that he met Jews for the first time, and the same was true for many of the other black protestors. He said that everyone should remember that Jews were African Americans’ closest allies in the civil rights movement. And he exhorted the audience to oppose anti-Semitism whenever they see it.
There was tension, however, between the two groups, even as they fought for the same cause. The white residents had largely been organized by the labor unions, while the Howard students organized themselves.
Leaders of each contingent felt like the other was telling them what to do. According to Esther Delaplaine, a graduate student was appointed to act as intermediary.
The Nazis arrive
Soon after the demonstrations began, George Lincoln Rockwell, an American Nazi Party leader, arrived with a group at Glen Echo. The Nazis heckled the desegregation protestors and attacked them with rocks.
The appearance of the Nazis both galvanized and terrified the local Jewish residents, the panelists said. The Delaplaines remembered several Jewish families, some of whom had survived the Holocaust, stayed at home.
John Kenyon, who grew up in Chevy Chase and attended the National Archives event, remembers the Nazis showing up.
“When the Nazis showed up at Glen Echo, it was just incomprehensible,” he said. “There was a lot of anger and just [being] dumbstruck.”
He and his friends, all around 15, joined the picket line, at first for the teenage thrill of making trouble. And all those Howard students “were just so cool,” he said.
The protests kindled his passion for activism.
After Glen Echo, Kenyon “could no longer sit back and go home and pretend that everything wasn’t screwed up,” he said.
Many times, speakers drew connections between the Glen Echo protests and more recent events that reflect America’s struggle with race.
One audience member asked why religion could lead some people to choose to do what he called “the right thing” while others chose to do “the wrong thing,” such as evangelical Christians voting for Trump. The panel took a pass on that question.
Ann Hoffman, who lives in Washington, said when Thomas spoke about Jews as allies in the civil rights movement, she thought of D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who is African American and used an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to explain a light snowfall.
“There’s no way to remember that if you never knew it,” she said, referring to alliances such as the one that formed at Glen Echo.
As the summer of 1960 ended, protesters vowed to return when the park opened the next spring. But the issue had already entered the political arena. In February 1961, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, spurred by a Jewish administration official who lived in Bannockburn, threatened Glen Echo’s owners with revoking the lease to the trolley line that brought people to the park.
The next month, the owners announced that Glen Echo would desegregate.
Hoffman said she was happy to see the story getting a wider audience.
“I just think it’s such an important story,” she said.