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Mildred F. ‘Mitzi’ Swan, a participant in the historic 1948 desegregation of Druid Hill Park tennis courts, dies

In 1948 when Mitzi Freishtat (later Swan) was 18, she was arrested for playing tennis with an African American partner at the segregated Druid Hill Park tennis courts. H.L. Mencken denounced segregation rule in his last column, Nov. 9, 1948.
In 1948 when Mitzi Freishtat (later Swan) was 18, she was arrested for playing tennis with an African American partner at the segregated Druid Hill Park tennis courts. H.L. Mencken denounced segregation rule in his last column, Nov. 9, 1948. (Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore Sun)

Mildred F. “Mitzi” Swan, who participated in the historic 1948 desegregation of the Druid Hill Park tennis courts and later became the bookkeeper for her husband’s business, died Saturday from multiple medical issues, family members said, at the Edenwald retirement community in Towson. She was 90.

The former Mildred Freishtat, the daughter of Russian immigrant parents, was born in Baltimore and raised on Whittier Avenue, off Auchentoroly Terrace, in a home across the street from the Druid Hill Park tennis courts, which would become a defining factor in her life.

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Her father was Jack Freishtat, owner of a West Baltimore fish and produce store, and her mother was Hannah Freishtat, who worked alongside her husband in his business, and later as a sales associate in a Gay Street children’s clothing store.

After graduating from Western High School in 1947, Mrs. Swan began her college studies at the University of Maryland.

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Mrs. Swan was 18 and a college sophomore at College Park when she joined the Young Progressives of Maryland, a third political party that was an offshoot of the Progressive Party of former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who ran as the party’s 1948 presidential candidate.

The Young Progressives were composed of interracial activists, which made civil rights one of their key political platforms They decided to stage a peaceful protest in Druid Hill Park of the city Park Board’s policy forbidding mixed matches between Black and white tennis players on segregated clay courts.

Word spread of the impending challenge, and more than 500 people gathered with picnic hampers and blankets on a slope overlooking the courts to witness the demonstration.

On Sunday, July 11, 1948, at 2 p.m., Mrs. Swan joined Mary Coffee and Gloria Stewart, who were Black, and Jeanette Fino, who was white, in preparation for playing a mixed-race doubles match on the “whites only” courts, when Capt. Gordon Gaeng of the park police, acting under orders from Charles A. Hook, superintendent of parks, asked the four women to stop the match.

When they refused, city police were summoned from the Northern District, which sent a patrol wagon and several radio cars, according to an account in The Sun, and proceeded to arrest 24 protesters as the crowd chanted, “They have a right to play," “This is a free country,” “Read the Declaration of Independence” and “Is this America or Nazi Germany?” the newspaper reported.

“Seven women and girls were among the 24 persons taken into custody. Police identified thirteen of the group as Negroes, two of them girls under 16 years of age. All except the two minors were lodged in cells at the police station until collateral was arranged for their release,” The Sun said.

“One man, identified as Charles M. Swan, 21, of the 3500 block of Oakmont Avenue, was charged with resisting arrest,” according to the newspaper account. “Swan also was charged with disorderly conduct. He was released on $101 collateral.”

Stanley Askins, the state director of the Young Progressives of Maryland, said in an interview with The Sun, “Discrimination against the Negro people means discrimination against Jews, Catholics and all minorities. Segregation is a policy used to divide people, and results in inferior living conditions and recreational facilities for all.”

In 1948 when Mitzi Freishtat was 18, she was arrested while playing tennis with an African American partner at the segregated Druid Hill Park courts. A magazine at the time ran this photo of the four women in the match. Freishtat had the clipping enlarged to poster size. The women, left to right, were Freishtat, Mary Coffee, Jeanette Fino and Gloria Stewart. JED KIRSCHBAUM/BALTIMORE SUN 2003
In 1948 when Mitzi Freishtat was 18, she was arrested while playing tennis with an African American partner at the segregated Druid Hill Park courts. A magazine at the time ran this photo of the four women in the match. Freishtat had the clipping enlarged to poster size. The women, left to right, were Freishtat, Mary Coffee, Jeanette Fino and Gloria Stewart. JED KIRSCHBAUM/BALTIMORE SUN 2003 (Jed Kirschbaum / XX)

Something else happened that day. Mrs. Swan met the man, a seaman, she would fall in love with and marry, who was also arrested in the protest.

“We were heroes,” Mrs. Swan told The Sun in 2003. “They had a big party that night. That’s when I met Charlie, at the party. I didn’t really date him for a couple of years. I was busy going to college.” They married in 1951.

The tennis court cases went to the old Supreme Bench of Baltimore, where seven people were convicted, including Mrs. Swan’s future husband, while 17 cases were dismissed, including hers.

After the verdicts were in, on Nov. 9, 1948, H.L. Mencken, in what would be his last column for The Sun — he suffered a crippling stroke several weeks later — was infuriated with what he called the "irrational and nefarious” tennis order.

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“A free citizen in a free state has an inalienable right to play with whomever he will, so long as he does not disturb the general peace. If any other citizen, offended by the spectacle, makes a pother, then that other citizen, and not the man exercising his inalienable right, should be put down by the police," Mr. Mencken wrote.

“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 public parks are supported by the taxpayer, including the colored taxpayer, for the health and pleasure of the whole people. ... It is high time that all such relics of Ku Kluxry be wiped out of Maryland.”

It wasn’t until 1955 that the Board of Recreation and Parks voted to end segregation in city parks, in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on Nov. 7, 1955, that ruled out segregation in any public facility in the country.

Mrs. Swan wrote that at an early age she was exposed to racial justice and equality by her parents, who had been persecuted because they were Jewish.

“They taught me that a person’s character was the determining criteria of worth; not religion or the color of one’s skin,” she wrote.

Until her husband’s death in 1982, Mrs. Swan was the bookkeeper for his business, Master Painting Co., which they operated out of their Randallstown home.

She continued her activism for social justice and other political interests when she volunteered for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who was being targeted for defeat by the National Conservative Political Action Committee during his first reelection campaign. She joined the work of New Directions for Women, now Maryland New Directions.

She was named executive director of the former Maryland Conference of Social Concern, where she worked on aging and fair housing policy and law and other social activism issues. She vigorously opposed the Iraq War.

“When you believe in something, you have to act on your beliefs,” she told The Sun in 2003.

In 1983, she moved to Cross Keys, where she lived for 30 years and studied painting and became a member of a group that was led by Gladys Goldstein, a well-known Baltimore artist. For more than 25 years, she participated in the Renaissance Institute at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where a class on writing resulted in her compiling a family memoir, “Memory Pictures.”

Since 2010, Mrs. Swan lived at Edenwald, where she immersed herself in painting, concerts, lectures, acting and working out.

In 1992, a marker honoring the protesters was unveiled in Druid Hill Park near the Howard Rawlings Conservatory, where the clay courts stood until their removal in 1989, lists Mrs. Swan, her late husband, and the other 22 who demonstrated that summer’s day in 1948.

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Plans for a celebration-of-life gathering at Edenwald are incomplete because of the pandemic.

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She is survived by two daughters, Carol L. Swan of Annapolis and Margaret R. Swan of Boston; a brother, David Freishtat of Monkton; and a grandson, a nephew and four nieces.

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