28 of August 1963 is the day of the March on Washington, the day Martin Luther King held his landmark speech "I Have a Dream". It is also the day 11-month-old Sharon Langley went on a ride on the merry-go-round at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park on the outskirts of Baltimore, the day the owners of the park agreed to end the segregation policy (via).
The Langley family had planned to go to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom but changed their mind because they could not find a baby-sitter for Sharon and thought that the civil rights rally would not be suitable for the toddler. They decided to go to Gwynn Oak instead (Nathan, 2011).
Sharon Langley became the first black child to go on a ride in Gwynn Oak. Her father, Charles C. Langley, Jr., stood by her side, two white children, a girl and a boy, sat on horses on either side of her. The girl's mother asked Charles Langley to keep an eye on her daughter. He was glad to help. The next day, newspapers covered stories about the March on Washington but also about Sharon's merry-go-round ride. The three children riding together and the parent-to-parent cooperation were examples of what Martin Luther King meant when he talked about his dream (via).
"As the merry-go-round's creaky wooden platform picked up speed, skin tones blended in a blur of happy faces." (Nathan, 2011)
A little girl in a pink dress made history. It was a huge step that she and her family could enter the amusement park at all without being beaten or arrested. Gwynn Oak Park had a centuries-old tradition of segregation. It opened in 1894 and was a whites-only park from the beginning (Nathan, 2011).
The owners' decision to finally put an end to segregation was a reaction to almost ten years of continuous prostests. Black and white activists, "collge students, teachers, professors, social workers, housewives, union members, lawyers, religious leaders, community organizers, journalists, teenagers, elementary school kids, and even some politicians" protested, wrote letters, carried signs, walked picket lines and tried to reason from 1955 to 1963. Some were assaulted, others arrested before the park finally opened up to all (Nathan, 2011).
Access to an amusement park was surely not the most serious problem black US-Americans were facing. Nevertheless, a great many people spent much time and energy to fight for the expansion of civil rights in recreational spaces. "It was symbolic." (Nathan, 2011).
"Gwynn Oak stood out as a symbol of all the evils inherent in the system of segregation ....It was a symbol that had to be faced and challenged."
Rev. Frank Williams, Letter to the Editor
The Sun, August 22, 1963
(taken from Nathan, 2011)
Years later, bankruptcy (after desegregation the park lost white customers) and Hurricane Agnes (in 1972) damaged Gwynn Oak Amusement Park (via). It closed. The merry-go-round was bought by a company and in 1981 it was moved to Washington's national Mall. It was renamed "Carousel on the Mall" and is located right in front of the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building (Nathan, 2011). Sharon Langley's name was engraved on a brass plate attached to the saddle of the horse she rode in 1963 (via).
- Nathan, A. (2011). Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books
- photos via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via