Who were the “undesirables?”
Anyone who was “rowdy” or “drunk,” or might frighten women and children was turned away from the amusement park by the uniformed guards. But the “undesirable element” also meant people of color.
A letter to the editor of The Washington Post provides evidence that an African American couple was refused entrance by guards at Chevy Chase Lake in 1898. Published on page 5 of the August 29, 1898 edition, the letter written by Henry Billings, who lived at 212 G Street NW in the District, describes the experiences of this couple. The headline and first paragraphs of Mr. Billing’s letter:
“PRIVILEGES AT CHEVY CHASE:
A Complaint that Colored People Are Excluded from the Grounds.
Editor Post: A gentleman and his wife, who are next door neighbors to me, went to Chevy Chase Lake a few weeks ago. Alighting from the cars, they concluded to follow the crowd to see the sights, and in doing so came to a narrow foot-bridge, over which at least 50 people had preceded them. Before reaching the terminus of the bridge they were accosted by a watchman and told the grounds were private and that they could not cross.
Unluckily for this couple, they are colored, yet they are classed among the most respectable colored people in the District. Submissive to the dictates of this guardian of snobbery, they retraced their steps and concluded to go around the little lake, and in doing so they were again halted, this time by a man whose rattling gibberish told plainly that he was not an American. …”
Mr. Billings drew a distinction between the couple who were turned away and the guard who did not speak English well. The “gentleman and his wife” were not just “respectable colored people,” but were citizens of the United States, while the guard seemed to be a recent immigrant who apparently had more rights and privileges. In the letter, we learn that the couple asked if there was someplace that was not private, and they were told to wait in an empty streetcar. Billings notes that there was no sign saying that people of color were not allowed at Chevy Chase Lake.
“Far more honorable would it be to have such notice given than to have foreign watchmen follow honest people to notify them that certain places are private and not intended for the comfort of those who pay their railroad fare, provided they belong to the colored race.”
Henry Billings, according to Boyd’s City Directory, was an employee at the U.S. Postal Service, a federal agency that was integrated at the time. He wrote his letter as an advocate for equal access to public spaces, on the streetcar that the couple rode to Chevy Chase Lake as well as the park itself. But the Chevy Chase Land Company, as the employees at the amusement park made clear, considered Chevy Chase Lake to be private, thus reserving the right to exclude whomever they deemed undesirable. This is just one example of racial exclusion during the “Jim Crow” era in the United States.
Segregated Amusement Parks and "Impromptu Indignation Meetings"
Although newspaper advertisements claimed that admission to Chevy Chase Lake was free, it was not really open to everyone. Like many other trolley parks and amusement parks of its era, Chevy Chase Lake was segregated. Nearby Bethesda Park, developed by John Beall in 1892 to help sell land in North Bethesda along the Tennallytown and Rockville Electric Railroad, was also segregated. Newspaper ads referred to it as the “Queen of Picnic Grounds,” but on June 19, 1893, a p. 5 Washington Post article reported that Bethesda Park had signs that read, “private park for white people only.” In this article, titled "Color Line at Bethesda Park," we learn that an "impromptu indignation meeting" was held when people of color were turned away from the park.
"Yesterday the cars took up the usual large crowd of colored people, who were so thoroughly mad when they reached the park and learned of their exclusion that an impromptu indignation meeting was held on the roadside, at which the proprietors of the place and white people in general were denounced."
"The owners of the place say they were forced to take the action that they did realizing that the presence of colored people would cause the whites to discontinue their patronage."
According to Robert Harrigan, Bethesda Park also provided “protection” to their patrons. In order to keep their white patrons, the amusement park guards, along with the posted signs, excluded people of color.
“Jim Crow” Laws and Practices
From the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s to the Civil Rights era, “Jim Crow” laws were passed by state and local governments restricting equal access to public transportation and other public facilities, especially in the South but also in the North. “Jim Crow” is a term for these local laws, regulations, and social practices, derived from an 1830s song and dance, really a caricature of blacks, performed by a white actor in blackface. The term became synonymous with segregation laws and practices.
In 1896, just two years before Mr. Billings wrote his letter to the editor of The Washington Post, the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, a case concerning equal access to public transportation in Louisiana, made “separate but equal” legal across the nation. After this decision, many cities passed laws that segregated blacks and whites on streetcars. The District of Columbia did not, but there were “unwritten social customs” that resulted in segregation, not just on streetcars but in other public places, including amusement parks like Chevy Chase Lake and Bethesda Park.
These practices, whether codified by law or by custom, de jure or de facto, persisted until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. The two instances reported in the local newspaper, Mr. Billing’s letter about Chevy Chase Lake and the “indignation meeting” at Bethesda Park, are evidence of these practices, but they also demonstrate that members of the African American community in the DC metropolitan area did not take these exclusions lightly – both the letter and the demonstration are forms of resistance against racial segregation.
Another response was the creation of resorts and amusement parks specifically for African Americans – such as Highland Beach, a resort founded on the Chesapeake Bay in 1893 by Frederick Douglass’ son Charles. In 1901, Notley Hall, a resort on the Potomac River, was taken over by Lewis Jefferson, an African American entrepreneur, and transformed into an amusement park for black families in the Washington area. As Andrew Kahrl shows in his study of Notley Hall, this effort further illustrates how the politics and practices of Jim Crow played out in recreational space.
Social and Cultural History of Chevy Chase Lake
The history of early twentieth century amusement parks is not just a chronicle about thrilling rides, novel amusements, or lively dance bands; it also reflects larger shifts in modern American society and culture, especially changing ideas related to race, gender roles and sexuality. Chevy Chase Lake, the place of so many pleasant memories of picnics, concerts, and merry-go-round rides, seems in conflict with the troubling narrative of racial segregation. Events in the 1890s would help set the stage for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For example, Amy Nathan has written the history of the effort to integrate Gwynn Oaks Park in Baltimore in her book, Round & Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement. Victoria Wolcott, in Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America, includes a chapter on Glen Echo Park in the 1960s. Although Chevy Chase Lake closed in the 1930s, it was founded in the same period as Gwynn Oaks and Glen Echo, and there are many parallels in their early histories.
In addition to racial segregation, Chevy Chase Lake was also the location for debates about gender and sexuality – for example, new dances like the turkey trot and the tango were banned in 1912, when they first became popular. Called “freak” dances, they were thought to be vulgar and sexually explicit. The role of religion had an impact on state laws that restricted dancing and amusements on Sundays. These Blue Laws had been on the books for years, but in 1911, there were efforts to enforce them in Maryland -- especially at amusement parks. In 1912, both Glen Echo Park and Chevy Chase offered concerts on Sunday, but no dancing, in order to avoid prosecution under the Blue Laws. Controversies and debates about race, class, gender and religion touched Chevy Chase Lake and its patrons in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways. Although African Americans were turned away from the park, in the 1920s and 30s, some of the most popular performers at Chevy Chase Lake were black musicians, dancers and vocalists. Again, the history of popular entertainment and amusements between 1890 and 1930 reflect the many changes in American society and culture in this period.