47 years ago, black tennis players took segregation to the court Serving as a Symbol

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Royal Weaver took a stand, 47 years ago, on a tennis court in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. On July 11, 1948, he and a group of fellow tennis players played a match aimed at ending segregation.

Any number of events in which African-Americans pressed for equal treatment after slavery could be called the beginning of the civil rights movement. This occasion was six years before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, seven years before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.

The protest in Druid Hill Park challenged the city's segregation laws and became the subject of a column by H. L. Mencken. Mr. Weaver is believed to be the last African-American still in Baltimore to have participated in that protest.

The change it sought, of course, was enormous -- and would only come years later after the Brown decision. Royal Weaver wonders why Baltimore's black community has never seemed to appreciate the significance of the 1948 protest.

"I think this was one of the first demonstrations for integration in the country," he said. "Blacks didn't, back in those days, take it to heart, so why should they take it to heart today?"

So perhaps it is fitting that the courts Mr. Weaver helped integrate that day are gone, and the Negro courts blacks were confined to back then remain the favorite haunt of African-Americans.

But the Negro court that used to draw the best players -- Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson among them -- is now disheveled and unusable. The city's Recreation and Parks Department is about to correct the toll time has taken on those courts and rename them in honor of Ashe and Gibson.

Testimony to their spiritual significance comes from the reminiscences of Baltimoreans like Mr. Weaver, for whom the courts are both historic and vital.

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Forty-seven years ago, tennis was still considered a game for the affluent. And many of the avid African-American players at Druid Hill Park were successful professionals, Mr. Weaver recalled, most of them teachers.

They had a lot to lose when the Young Progressives, an offshoot of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party, hatched the idea of staging a match between blacks and whites to protest segregation.

"The Baltimore Tennis Club was approached by these so-called communists who wanted to arrange a tennis match between their club and ours," Mr. Weaver recalled. "They did all the advertising; we just went out to play a match."

"Not too many blacks showed up," Mr. Weaver continued. "They had never done anything like this before, and they were actually afraid to come out on that tennis court. They didn't want to lose their jobs, so they stayed away."

Mr. Weaver was selling automobiles for DS&D; Motors at the time. He said he knew he wasn't risking his job or anything else by participating. He had been in Baltimore only a year. The son of a funeral home director, he grew up in a middle-class family in Philadelphia and had moved to the native city of his new wife, Hermione.

"We'd never really had any problems because of our race at the park," Mr. Weaver said. "Of course, you always have suspicions. I remember my wife and I were in Philadelphia one day and this other young couple kept looking at us and whispering to each other.

"Finally, I decided to say something to them. And you know what, they had just been downtown, and he had bought a coat exactly like the one I was wearing. They were admiring it. I can see why some white people resent when black people react without stopping to think."

His light complexion and straight hair could have easily allowed Mr. Weaver to pass for white. Instead, he made sure people knew he was black and that he expected to be treated as an equal.

"I'm proud of what I did. I'm also very proud of what I didn't do," Mr. Weaver said. "I have never tried to be white."

The match had barely begun at the clay courts next to the Conservatory -- the ones reserved for whites -- when the police broke up the event and arrested 24 people. Seven were charged with conspiracy to disturb the peace.

Mr. Weaver said he anticipated policemen might mistake him for white man, so he made sure they knew he wasn't.

No violence

"I wasn't afraid," Mr. Weaver said. "There was no violence. They put us in jail, in one big room. We sang. I don't remember what songs. But we had a joyful time, just getting to know new friends."

Disorderly conduct charges were brought against most of the protesters. But seven of the Young Progressives were convicted of conspiracy. Although they received suspended sentences, they appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mencken then weighed in, with a Nov. 8, 1948, column in The Evening Sun.

"Certainly it is astounding to find so much of the spirit of the Georgia Cracker surviving in the Maryland Free State, and under official auspices," he wrote.

The Supreme Court justices refused to review the decision.

In bed most days now -- with both legs amputated as a result of circulatory problems -- Mr. Weaver, 78, has mixed feelings about what happened 47 years ago.

"It's a matter now of getting our people to really try to understand why we did it," he said. "Black people should know the background of this. We should never forget how things were and why things changed."

Baltimore's recreation facilities were officially integrated by the city park board in 1955. Many black players then started using the white tennis courts at Druid Hill Park. But most went back to the Negro courts -- even before the Conservatory courts were removed in 1989.

In 1992, one of Mr. Weaver's tennis buddies who didn't participate in the protest, Charlie Williams, led a successful drive to have a commemorative plaque placed at the site of the demonstration, now a grassy area next to the Conservatory.

"I played on the white courts a couple of times," said Mr. Williams, 76, "but we really weren't interested in them as much as we were the right to play where we wanted to play with whom we wanted to play."

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On a recent Sunday, cold, damp and not yet noon, what used to be the Negro courts were already filled with players wearing jogging suits or jackets. When the weather gets warmer, the six courts will get busier, nearly resembling their activity when blacks had no choice but to play there.

Down an embankment, in a place known as "the hole," is the court that once attracted the best players -- and which now attracts none. Surrounded by a stone wall with an attached green chain-link fence rusting above it, the court is covered with piles of dirt and rocks. This is where Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson played in tournaments as teen-agers.

Alongside the court are the remains of what was the park's swimming pool for Negroes. The only thing in the drained pool now are a few uprooted tree stumps.

The plan to overhaul Druid Hill Park includes $300,000 to renovate the old Negro tennis courts, add seating for tournament play and transform the pool area into a site for outdoor programs.

The renovation plans have been praised by tennis players who grew up using the segregated courts. And if they have forgotten the protest, as Mr. Weaver fears, they remember the heyday of "the hole."

Both Ashe and Gibson were proteges of Dr. Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, Va., physician and talent scout in the 1940s and '50s.

"Ashe and the other members of his team would come to town and I would feed them," said Myrtle Koger, 68, whose daughter Anne, was also a student of Johnson's. "Ashe would choose a doubles partner and spot us five games. We would do our best to win, but never did."

John "Junkie" Woods, 83, said "Whirlwind" Johnson always had four or five budding tennis stars with him when he came to Baltimore. Among the Ashe group one time was John Lucas, who later became a University of Maryland basketball star and now coaches the Philadelphia 76ers.

"Dr. Johnson came by my house one night with Arthur and said he wanted to learn the Madison [a popular dance]," Mr. Woods said. "Arthur just sat in the corner and watched. He never said much."

Leonard Pickett, 59, said it would be hard to forget Ashe if you saw him play. "I never saw anyone who could volley as hard as he could. I never saw anyone hit with such speed. I couldn't imagine anyone beating him," said Mr. Pickett.

"He beat all them white folks around here," said Charlie Williams.

"He was beating older people like I don't know what," said Joe Parhame, 68.

But Ashe wasn't invincible. The memories of Franklin Fitzgerald, 61, include a post-integration showdown between young Ashe and Buzzy Hettleman, the white guy who won the city championship eight times.

Taking on Ashe

"Buzzy Hettleman was the best player in the city," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "I remember one year they played on the clay courts just as you come into the park. Buzzy was a college kid, older than Ashe, and he beat Ashe badly."

Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, Maryland's former secretary of human resources, is 60 now. He says he and Ashe played only that one time.

"I always tease that I beat Arthur Ashe," he said. "But he was about 13 and I was 21 and had been the city champ for several years. And I barely beat him. I think the scores were 6-4, 7-5, or something like that. I was never in his league when he was an adult."

Currently director of Project Raise, a program that helps inner-city youths stay in school, Mr. Hettleman believes he was probably the first white city champ who would play in tennis tournaments on Druid Hill's Negro courts in the early 1950s.

"It was a combination of mission and a trophy is a trophy, I guess. Actually, I thought it was very important. I went to a segregated school system. I went to a segregated college. But Druid Hill Park was a very different place, where you didn't know if someone was a stockbroker or worked at Bethlehem Steel or what. Everybody looks the same in their little white pants."

Irvington "Rip" Williams began playing at Druid Hill Park more than 50 years ago and, at 78, still goes there occasionally to hit the ball. He said Baltimore's best black and white tennis players actually sneaked and played each other at times during segregation and the police simply winked an eye at such activity. "We did play together, but it was against the law," he said.

"There was no trouble because we didn't ask for permission to use the courts, we just played," Royal Weaver said. "When you ask, that's when you get in trouble."

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