Clearly John Waters had Gwynn Oak amusement park in mind as the model for “Tilted Acres” in his 1988 movie “Hairspray,” depicting the struggle for racial equality in the Baltimore of the 1960?s through humor, song, and dance, rather than divisive polemic. The nadir of race relations was reflected in George Wallace’s gubernatorial inaugural address in January: “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever,” became the catchphrase of opposition to racial equality. The Governor of Alabama could violate federal desegregation law with impunity. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for the average citizen to do the same.
This may have been the case with the Price brothers, the owners of Gwynn Oak.
The Washington Post reported that on August 28, 1963 the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park was quietly desegregated. The park, located in Baltimore County, had been the focus of civil rights protests during the previous month, on July fourth. Almost three hundred had been arrested including many white clergy. Then County Executive Spiro T. Agnew had been critical of the protesters saying that they had “lost sight of their responsibilities.”
On that same day 250,000 people marched on Washington organized by the openly gay social activist Bayard Rustin, among others. There Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his most famous utterance: “I have a dream.” Centuries of inequality would not change overnight. The “rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” as Dr. King phrased it that day, would begin with continued struggle, setbacks, and heartbreak.
The desegregation of Gwynn Oak may seem small compared to the march on Washington. But the Fourth of July protests at Gwynn Oak were attended by less than four hundred and more than two hundred eighty were arrested. So in a sense these local heroes were taking much bigger risks.
On September 15, 1963 four black girls died when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, in Birmingham, Alabama. In “Behind The Backlash: White Working-class Politics in Baltimore,” author Kenneth D. Durr revealed that the Archdiocese of Baltimore held George Wallace personally responsible for those deaths and that the Archdiocese dubbed him a “law defying racist.”