Local Black History in our backyard

On June 30, 1960, a group of Black college students took a ride on the carousel at Maryland’s Glen Echo Park and refused to get off.

Five students were arrested that day, but demonstrations calling for the amusement park to desegregate continued outside the park for weeks afterward.

They were some of the most impactful acts of protest and civil disobedience to happen in our region during the Civil Rights Movement. The park’s owners finally desegregated Glen Echo in March 1961, after then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy threatened to pull the federal government’s lease on the land where the amusement park ran a trolley.

Sixty years after that initial demonstration, those who were there are looking back at that fight and are comparing it to today’s protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

“Shakespeare once said ‘what is past is prologue,’ says 78-year-old Dion Diamond, who protested at Glen Echo Park (as well as at an Arlington lunch counter) and lives in D.C.’s Forest Hills neighborhood today. “If you don’t know your history and don’t know your past, it’s going to come back and bite you. I’d tell [those protesting today] be aware of what formerly was and what is.”

Diamond grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, and moved to D.C. to attend Howard University, where he joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). Inspired by sit-ins further south, their first protest was the lunch counter at Arlington’s Cherrydale Drug Fair.

It was marked by hostility and verbal abuse from some in the crowd, as evidenced by a photo that shows a young white kid aggressively sticking a finger in Diamond’s face. But the sit-in worked. Within two weeks, lunch counters across Arlington desegregated.

Later that summer, NAG went to Glen Echo Park.

“We were protesting segregation … which is a seed of what’s happening today,” says Diamond.

Diamond and others showed up to Glen Echo Park in suburban Maryland on June 30 holding signs that read things like “Glen Echo Should Echo Democracy,” “Discrimination is Not Our Generation,” and “Bigotry is No Fun.”

At about 6 p.m., a dozen of them, most of whom were Black, entered the park with tickets in hand purchased by white protesters. They took their seats on the brightly decorated carousel. After a few moments, a deputy sheriff approached them, demanding they move. None did.

“I remember a sheriff coming up to me and saying ‘I’m going to ask you three times to leave. If you don’t, I’m going to arrest you,’” retired dentist Bill Griffin, 83, told DCist in 2018. “He just wanted us out.”

In one well-known photograph, Marvous Saunders leans over a sculpted rabbit, calmly listening to the sheriff. “We were just trying to make life a little better for those folks who happened to be Black,” Saunders told DCist back in 2018.

Five protesters were arrested, but later that night, the local NAACP legal team bailed them out. The next day, they were back protesting at the park’s gates and for weeks afterward.

Diamond says the past month of consistent protests in D.C. has made him reminiscence about what he and others had to do 60 years ago. “It has gotten me to pause to applaud and to pause to cry.”

He thinks the country has come far since 1960 in terms of civil rights but says systemic racism and prejudice absolutely still exist and he understands the anger, frustration, and hurt of this moment. “It’s like a teapot. It starts out slowly and then it comes to a boil,” he says.

He says he has not gone out protesting himself over the last few weeks due to his age and the risks associated with COVID-19.

His own life experiences remain at the forefront of his mind, however. He shares an anecdote about recently going for a socially distant walk wearing a mask in his Northwest neighborhood of Forest Hills.

“I don’t know if it’s just me or my paranoia, but I walked by a couple of dog walkers. I’m looking over my shoulder and they are looking over their shoulders,” says Diamond. “There aren’t that many Blacks in this neighborhood. And, I must admit, sometimes I think people are saying ‘what’s he doing here?’ That’s a thought that has come with my experiences in life.”

Diamond acknowledges that there are a few differences between today and 1960. This month’s protesters, in particular Black Lives Matter D.C., have made demands for economic change, including defunding the Metropolitan Police Department and investing in social programs. This “dichotomy of the haves and have nots” wasn’t a huge focus back then, Diamond says.

There’s also, of course, the advancement of readily available cell phone cameras. “I don’t believe without the camera shots, you would have had the protest and the demonstrations that you have today,” says Diamond. “I don’t know, over the years, how many people were beaten by a policeman or a pedestrian was killed and nobody saw it.”

He also feels like these protests are more diverse, with more white people joining their fellow Black citizens in standing up than he’s seen in the past. “[I’m] very pleased with so many people in such diverse crowds all over the country.”

Joan Mulholland, in 2018, showing a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and one of the tickets that the protesters used to get into Glen Echo Park.Matt Blitz / DCist

78-year-old Joan Mulholland (then Trumpauer) was also there on that day in Glen Echo and lives in Arlington today. She’s also the woman in the Cherrydale photo behind Diamond.

Mulholland, who is white, agrees that the diversity of these protests makes them different from the ones she participated in the 1960s. “Overall, in the Civil Rights movement back then, it was mostly Black,” says Mulholland. “A white person really stood out, which was part of my role.”

She also agrees that ability for images and video to quickly travel at the speed of social media is a big reason why more people of all backgrounds are participating. But, additionally, she says it’s due to the societal integration that Mulholland and many, many others fought for.

“People get to know each other now, become friends, and connect across these old barriers,” she says.

Today, Mulholland continues to fight for social justice despite knee surgery. “I can’t march anymore. But I can run my mouth,” she says. She specifically says that statutes dedicated to Confederates and racists need to come down, particularly one of former President Andrew Jackson that protesters nearly brought down last week. “President Jackson… please, let him be struck by lightning and melt,” she says.

Mulholland’s advice to protesters today is to find similarities rather than differences in fellow activists. “Make allies and come together with other groups,” says Mulholland. “You may not agree on everything, but come together on the things you do agree on.”

Diamond, too, continued as an activist for many years after the protest at Glen Echo Park, including becoming a Freedom Rider.

He’s hopeful that the protests and the diverse groups of people calling for change today will lead to a better America soon. But he’s realistic. He says when he first heard of and saw the murder of George Floyd, he thought of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

“Here we go. Another Black man,” says Diamond. “All of the Black men who were maimed or killed over the years… The more things change, the more they stay the same.”