Pools, Picnics, and Protests: Notes on the History of African American Travel, Recreation, and Leisure

by Emily Sachs, Librarian, African American Department

July is my favorite month.  It’s the heart of summer, which evokes childhood memories of family road trips to the beach, afternoons swimming and playing H-O-R-S-E at the park, and washing the day’s sweaty adventures down with a slushie or a snowball. A powerful nostalgia surfaces when I recall these youthful experiences of relaxation and recreation, but a closer look at materials in the African American Department are a reminder of a related yet quite different chapter in history: the fight to end discrimination and segregation in recreation and leisure venues around the country. Of particular interest–and inspiration–are the local stories of community empowerment and acts of social protest that defined this period.  

While many Americans take summer travel for granted, not all citizens enjoyed the luxury of the leisurely road trip punctuated by the occasional rest stop to stretch their legs or get a cold drink.  In order to avoid discrimination and sometimes violent harassment during the Jim Crow era, African Americans often consulted the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook published between 1936-1966 that listed hotels, restaurants, gas stations, taverns, and other businesses that welcomed African American travelers. Flip through our copy of the guidebook to find the local establishments that opened their doors to African American travelers–many of them located on Baltimore’s famed Pennsylvania Avenue.  

The integration of public parks was a watershed moment in history. At the library you can dig into our extensive digital archives of the Baltimore Afro-American and Baltimore Sun newspapers to uncover articles chronicling local protests, including a July 1948 interracial tennis match at Druid Hill Park that ended in 24 arrests (and an infamous steaming indictment of the state’s segregation laws by Baltimore icon H.L. Mencken) and the 1956 integration of the city’s public swimming pools.

The Free State gets several nods in Victoria Wolcott’s Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: the Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America. Wolcott’s book traces the history of racial discrimination at amusement parks and other entertainment facilities around the nation and highlights acts of resistance. Locally this includes protests at Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County, where a group of Howard University students led a famous sit-in at the park’s carousel and at Gwynn Oak Park in Baltimore County, where a series of demonstrations involving a number of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergy culminated in the arrest of over 260 people in July 1963 and led to the park’s integration that same year.    

In addition to protesting and picketing at segregated facilities, African Americans developed their own community spaces for recreation and leisure. In Patsy Mose Fletcher’s Historically African American Leisure Destinations around Washington D.C., photos abound of African American beach communities in Maryland such as Highland, Sparrows, and Carr’s beaches in Anne Arundel County, and smaller resorts such as Eagle Harbor in Prince George’s County and Seagull Beach in Calvert County. The largest of these venues hosted shows by famous musicians touring the “Chitlin Circuit,” the colloquial name given to the collection of performance venues considered safe for traveling African American entertainers. Veteran Pratt library employee Doris Thompson remembers visiting Carr’s Beach in the1960’s to see Jackie Wilson, Diana Washington, and James Brown. “When the stage shows came on in the evening, they’d kick us kids out back to the playground, but we’d just jump in the water, circle around behind the adults and find our way back in. Those were good times,” reminisces Thompson. Thumb through Fletcher’s book to see pictures of  pleasure seekers, from early residents who boarded steamships in their summer finery to visit African American resorts along the Potomac to swimsuit clad citizens parading, picnicking and partying at black-owned beachfront communities on the Chesapeake Bay.

To learn more about the history of African American travel, recreation, and leisure, or a variety of other topics, stop by the African American Department on the first floor of the Enoch Pratt Central Library Annex to investigate the Eddie and Sylvia Brown African American Collection. Sandwich it in between a trip to the pool and your local snowball stand, and call it a perfect summer day.     

Need Homework Help?

Did you know you can get free homework help at the Pratt Library?

During the month of May alone, more than 1,000 students turned to Pratt librarians to help them with their schoolwork.  Online tutors are standing by until late at night to help you with subjects like Algebra, Writing, Biology, Calculus, History, Spanish, Chemistry, and so many more. We also offer “Chat with a Librarian” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Have a fact you need checked? Try out our online databases that are specifically designed to suit your needs.  You can even learn a new language with our Rosetta Stone access.  Still need help?  Our library reference desk is open during regular library hours. Just call 410-396-5430.  And, if you prefer face-to-face interaction, pop into one of our 21 neighborhood branches where the computers are free to use and staff is trained to help you succeed in school.

Eight Great Reviews from 2017 Adult Summer Challenge Participants

Our 2017 Adult Summer Challenge participants have discovered some fantastic summer reads. Here are some:

Latanya C. (Central Library) on Fun Home : A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel: This was the first time I ever read a graphic novel.  It was really fun and interesting.  The story was amazing.  To live with someone all your life and not know that they are living a secret life is mind-blowing.  I saw a lot of me in the author.  Even though the story was a comedy, you could feel her pain.  I recommend this book to everyone.

Catherine H. (Govans Branch) on Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: A great read with a fascinating lead character, this story explores what happens when a woman accustomed to a life of isolation begins to make meaningful connections with others. Both funny and heartbreaking at times, Honeyman manages to strike a balance that keeps Eleanor from being too quirky or too sad.  By the end, you’ll be cheering for Eleanor and reveling in her transformation.

Mark C. (Govans Branch) on Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: An incredible memoir of the Daily Show host growing up in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa. What a life! Easy to read and very engaging, filled with a mix of humor, poignancy, critique of Apartheid, history, and celebration of his mother.

Jenna H. (Hampden Branch) on A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman: A good read to help you think deeply about people and how to make a positive change in the lives of others.

Michael D. (Light Street Branch) on A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 by G. J. Meyer: Consider this book as a beautifully researched update of Tuchman’s Guns of August. And then the history goes on for many readable pages, emphasizing European events on the battlefields of the Great Powers as well as some lesser events on the ground, giving general coverage to events at sea and in the colonies of the warring power through the end of 1917.  The author clearly benefited from the five decades of more released information since Tuchman. He will cover the impact of America’s entry into the war in the next volume…which I look forward to.

Nicole M. (Orleans Street Branch) on And Then There Was Me by Sadeqa Johnson: Great book! All women can relate with family, children, friendship, marriage, and infidelities.

Holly T. (Staff) on Dying To Be Me by Anita Moorjani: Anita Moorjani’s Near-Death Experience and complete recovery from stage 4 cancer is amazing and wondrous! It’s also hard to believe. But it’s a beautiful story. “I want to believe” as Fox Mulder’s UFO poster says.

Yvonne M. (Walbrook Branch) on The Shack by William P. Young: What a great read. The Shack makes you contemplate everything you’ve been taught about religion.

For a chance to win fabulous prizes, submit an entry to the Adult Summer Reading Program here.