On the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King made history with his Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an 11-month-old Sharon Langley was making history of her own at Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Park. She was the first African-American to ride an amusement attraction, after 10 years of protests and demonstrations against the park’s whites-only admission policy, which finally ended that day.
Langley and her parents, Charles C. “Buddy” Langley Jr., a Social Security Administration supply and property clerk who was wearing a clasped-hands Freedom March badge on his sport coat that day, and his wife, Marian, a Sinai Hospital nurse, were the first African-Americans to integrate the park, whose owners, brothers James, David and Arthur Price, had spent a decade vigorously fighting attempts to integrate.
On Aug. 28, the Langley family, who lived in the 4300 block of Elderon Ave. in West Arlington, decided against going to the civil rights rally in Washington, and arrived at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park at about 1:15 p.m., reported The Sun.
“The Langleys strolled through the midway, examining the different arcades until they reached the merry-go-round, where Sharon got her first ride, after an unsuccessful try on an out-of-commission coin-operated horse,” The Sun reported.
“No angry faces greeted us, only smiling news reporters and photographers, who rushed around us,” wrote Sharon Langley and co-author Amy Nathan in their recently published book “A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story."
“Daddy said he marched me straight over to the carousel. He helped me onto a big, smiling horse. He put his arm around me and held my hand, so I wouldn’t be afraid. Mama stood nearby, waving,” she wrote. “Photographers jumped onto the ride with us. They took photos of Daddy and me, because I was the first African-American child to go on a ride that day.”
While on the merry-go-round, a white woman approached Charles Langley and asked if he wouldn’t mind watching her daughter, while a white boy and a white girl sat on either side of Sharon.
“Those are the kinds of things that make me feel we’ll be accepted,” he told a reporter. “I hope people of both races continue to support the park. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be a tremendous success.”
Today, the carousel that Langley, now a Los Angeles resident, rode that day, is on the National Mall in Washington, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, where it has been repainted to honor the early-1960s Freedom Riders. Her name is inscribed on one horseshoe and on a brass saddle plate.
In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes wrecked the amusement park — though, amazingly, the carousel was spared. Gwynn Oak is now a park.
Langley’s father died in 1989.