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The Carousel on the Mall: Spinning civil rights history

Sunday - 2/26/2012, 2:37pm  ET

mallcarousel_carouselassoc.jpg
The carousel now sits just behind the Smithsonian Castle. (Courtesy of the National Carousel Association)

Spinning History

Tristiana Hinton reports

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Tristiana Hinton, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Every day, families from around the world visit the carousel on the National Mall. For some, it's a tradition.

"My parents did it for me. We did it for our daughter. Now my daughter is doing it for her son," said visitor Ricky Fuell.

But the carousel hasn't always been there. Fifty years ago, it sat in Gwynn Oak Amusement Park just outside of Baltimore. Gwynn Oak opened in the 1890s and was "Whites-Only" for many years.

That began to change in the summer of 1955, just a year after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision led Baltimore to integrate its public schools.

"They started having protests at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. They decided, well, if kids could go to school together, why couldn't they go to amusement parks together," said Amy Nathan, author of "Round and Round Together," which documents the history of the carousel.

Arthur Price, Jr. and his brother owned the park at the time. They stood by their decision to keep it segregated.

"The family regarded it as a business issue," Nathan said. "They said that it would be economic suicide if they integrated the park."

The protests went on for eight years.

Retired Tennessee Judge D'Army Bailey was a protester during the summer of 1963.

"We proceeded to the gate of the park. And the police had lined up in front to block us from entering the park," Bailey recalled. "When they ordered us to disperse and return to our buses, we all sat down on the pavement."

Bailey was arrested on the Fourth of July with 282 people.

"That was the first wave of protests, and that was followed two days later because the park remained segregated," he said. "For me, that was probably one of the greatest personal experiences one can have, to go willing to jail, for something that you know will make a difference."

The protests and arrests brought national media attention to the park.

"About two weeks after their demonstrations, negotiations resulted in the owners dropping Jim Crow," Nathan said.

A few weeks later, the park was opened to all children.

According to Nathan, "Gwynn Oak Amusement Park dropped segregation on the very same day as the March on Washington, and on that day, Sharon Langley was the first African-American child to go on a ride there."

The carousel stayed in Gwynn Oak until 1972, when Hurricane Agnes destroyed the park. The carousel survived. It moved to the National Mall in 1981 where, today, it continues to welcome kids of all races.

"My kids are Hispanic and they're able to ride this beautiful carousel," said Ursala Pena. "I can't believe it was like that before."

One grandmother is glad her grandson doesn't have to live in a time where race would prevent him from playing with other children.

"I think that's the beauty of this park and this city and what the world is like today in most places," she said.

Bailey hopes that the fight for equality he and others went through 50 years ago is not forgotten.

"So that people understand that they ride, not just for the joy of a beautiful carousel, but they ride as a part of a new history," he said.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)