On Beechwood Drive, leading up to the Rawlings Conservatory in Druid Hill Park stands a small historical marker. Erected in 1992, it sits where the main clay tennis courts in Druid Hill Park once stood. It was at these courts that one of the earliest Civil Rights protests in America took place: a tennis match. On Sunday, July 11th, 1948, a group of black and white tennis players gathered at two of the “whites only” clay courts to play. The game was organized by the civil rights activist group the Young Progressives of Maryland.
At the time, African American tennis players had to go to separate courts in the park to play tennis. These courts were crumbling and in much worse condition than the “whites only” ones. However, this ban on interracial tennis matches was not written in any law. Instead, it was an informal city policy enforced by the police. Because of this, the Young Progressives saw the courts as a good target for a protest.
The Young Progressives had already held multiple interracial matches at the clay courts protesting segregation. However, these matches were often on Sundays during church services, so few people noticed them. For the July 11th match, the Young Progressives wanted to draw a larger crowd. They posted a flier reading “KILL JIM CROW! DEMAND YOUR RIGHTS! Organize to smash discrimination in recreational facilities.” They also sent a letter to the superintendent of the Bureau of Recreation telling him their plan to hold an interracial tennis match at the park.
Their attempts at drawing a crowd on July 11th were more than successful. Hundreds of people had come to the clay tennis courts to support the Young Progressives. The Park Police were also at the courts waiting for the players to start. The players included four men and four women, with two African Americans and two whites in each group. The men were the first to try and start a game. However, as soon as they went to serve the ball, they were immediately told to leave or be arrested. The players refused to leave, and sat down on the courts. The police had to carry them off the court in order to arrest them. The women then attempted to play, but they too were arrested. Along with the players, many people in the crowd and later outside the Northern Police Station were also arrested for disorderly conduct. In total, 22 people were arrested in relation to the protest.
Those who were arrested were accused of violating park rules, disturbing the peace, and/or conspiracy to unlawfully assemble. Only 7 people charged with disturbing the peace served out a jail sentence. All of the other charges were dropped because what the protesters had done was not actually illegal. This case was an important first step in Maryland’s long Civil Rights movement. It was the first time in Maryland history that both blacks and whites filed a lawsuit together claiming that Jim Crow laws violated their rights.
Today, the tennis courts are still a regularly visited spot in Druid Hill Park. However, the courts that were in use when the Young Progressives played their match in 1948 were removed in 1989. All that stands as a reminder of the old clay courts is the historical sign near the Rawlings Conservatory. The sign, entitled “Playing for Civil Rights,” is specifically dedicated to the events of June 11th, 1948, including a short explanation of the protest and why it happened. This is meant to ensure that the courage shown by the activists on that day will never be forgotten.The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.