African-American History

“Happy play in grassy places:” Baltimore’s Playgrounds in Photographs, 1911-1936

1966-3-786 Patterson Park

Children at Patterson Park, August 1916, Harry B. Leopold, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection,1966.3.786, MdHS.

Happy play in grassy places;

That was how in ancient ages

Children grew to kings and sages. (1)

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the nation’s park system underwent a radical transformation. The park as a bucolic escape from the buzz and bustle of urban life defined the ideal of public parks in the United States from their emergence in the mid 1800s. When Druid Hill Park, Baltimore’s first public park and the third in the nation, opened in 1860, city residents could enjoy 600 acres of sylvan refuge in which to stroll, picnic, and rejuvenate the spirit. By the end of the century, this notion was being supplanted by progressive era ideas of public park spaces as sites for recreation, education, and moral uplift, particularly for the nation’s youngest citizens. Reformers pushed the “strenuous life” and organized recreation as a tonic for the ills of the city’s poverty stricken children: poor health, poor education, and poor morals. This applied to both white and African-American residents, in parallel but hardly equal ways. The rise of the recreation movement coincided with the adoption of the policy of separate but equal in 1896 that would govern the nation’s stance on race for the next half century.

In the spring of 1897, a group of civic minded feminists inaugurated the park movement in Baltimore. Founded by Eliza Ridgely and Eleanor Freeland, the United Women of Maryland sought to bring together “the women of Maryland of all classes and denominations, to interest themselves more earnestly in the affairs of their own sex.”(2) The organization also took on the cause of uplifting and educating underprivileged youth. Inspired by the success of programs in Boston and New York, the women established the Children’s Playground Association (CPA), and quickly gained permission from the City School Board to set up playgrounds in public school yards. In July, the first playground was erected at Eastern Female High School on Aisquith Street. Two more parks followed that summer, one in South Baltimore and a “colored” facility at the Waesche Street School Yard in West Baltimore. Over 10,000 children attended that first year. The new park program grew rapidly – ten years later, the CPA reported attendance of 180,037 at 20 school playgrounds and eight playgrounds located in parks, including Druid Hill, Carroll, and Patterson Park. Six of the school playgrounds, and one park playground, Druid Hill Park No.2, were designated for African-American children (Druid Hill Park No.1 was for whites only). In neighborhoods where access to parks or schools were limited, “Guilds of Play” – supervised play areas in the street – were created.

Open Deck play area of the Recreation Pier, ca 1915, Harry Leopold, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.415, MdHS.

Recreation Pier, today the luxury Sagamore Pendry Hotel, was built in 1914 a commercial wharf. The Children’s Playground Association organized folk dancing, roller skating, sports, and other “healthful activities” on the 315’ x 132’ open deck area. The large interior ballroom hosted dances, a children’s library, and educational classes.
Open Deck play area of the Recreation Pier, ca 1915, Harry Leopold, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.415, MdHS.

CPA volunteers, almost all women, organized activities designed to develop the mind and body and foster good moral character. These ranged from sports including dodgeball, baseball, basketball, and swimming, to doll shows, puppetry, marbles, folk dancing, and block building. Playground activities and athletics were balanced with instructional classes on cooking, gardening, wood carving, and sewing. By 1906 there were libraries at six playgrounds. Children learned basic health practices, the importance of regular bathing, and how to properly brush their teeth. Future mothers received classes in infant care. The children were required to follow only two rules: “to be kind to one another and to have clean faces, hands and feet.”(3)

In 1908, the city began appropriating funds for the CPA; the next year the group received half of its funding from the city. That same year the Association was joined by another private organization dedicated to providing recreational outlets for the city’s youth. Founded by Robert Garrett, the 1896 Olympic discus champion and scion of the railroading family, the Public Athletic League stressed rigorous exercise and energetic competition primarily for boys over the age of fourteen:

“We have formed an organization that aims to draw into healthful forms of exercise under proper supervision an appreciable proportion of the juvenile population of Baltimore and its suburbs, and it has been formed because we perceive and frankly acknowledge that it will go hard with the city in future years if we do not take better care of this juvenile population; for its vitality an vigor and its morals are being sapped by the conditions with which it is surrounded…In our schools the brain is the all-important thing – the rest of the child’s make-up is neglected or forgotten. It doesn’t seem to matter whether Johnnie’s body is warped or his morals are irregular…a bright mind may be worse than useless unless it is supported by a strong moral character and a sound, vigorous body.”(4)

The League sponsored track and field meets, basketball tournaments, baseball games, and all manner of “the social, vigorous, fighting plays of youth” throughout Baltimore’s parks and across the state.(5) In 1922 the two organizations merged forming the Playground Athletic League (PAL). By the mid 1930s, there were 100 PAL sponsored playgrounds around the city with attendance of over one and a half million a year.

1966-3-513 Hoschild Kohn and Company Play Day, Druid Hill Park P

Hoschild Kohn and Company Play Day, Druid Hill Park Playground No. 2,1936, Paul Henderson, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.513, MdHS.

From the beginning, the park system maintained separate but far from equal facilities for African-Americans. In 1911, most of the eight park playgrounds designated for whites were open from 9 am to as late as 9 pm; Druid Hill Park’s Playground No.2, was only available from 2 pm to 5 pm. Baltimore’s oldest park offered a single, run down playground for African-Americans, while white park goers had access to ten well-maintained play areas. The library centers were located in white only playgrounds. In southwest Baltimore, Carroll Park remained off limits to African-American residents, whose only option was a “Guild of Play” on Bayard and Ward Street. By the 1930s, most of the 21 playgrounds designated for African-Americans fell far below the standards of those for their white counterparts.

The photographs featured here, showing activities of the Children’s Playground Association, Public Athletic League and the Playground Athletic League, span the years 1911 to 1936. In 1937, the City ended the Playground Athletic League’s jurisdiction over Baltimore’s parks and playgrounds. Three years later PAL and five other private recreation organizations were consolidated and absorbed into a new Department of Public Recreation. Over the next few decades another fundamental shift in the park system occurred as, brick by brick, the walls of segregation came tumbling down. Activists in the 1940s began protests and legal assaults that led to the desegregation of the city’s public golf courses and tennis courts. In 1947, the first African-American, Bernard Harris, was appointed to the Park Board. Within a few years, segregationists on the Board, including Robert Garrett, were forced out. Finally in 1955, a year after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision abolished segregation in public schools, the Park Board voted to end the practice in Baltimore’s park system, although resistance to the ruling continued for decades.

(Damon Talbot)

(This piece originally appeared in the Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 112, No.1, Spring/Summer 2017.)

1966-3-001 City Springs

City Springs, Pembroke Memorial Playground, Pratt and Eden Streets, 1912 – 1913, unidentified photographer, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.001, MdHS.

1966-3-459 Modern Health Crusade Tournament 1924

Modern Health Crusade Tournament, 1924, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.459, MdHS.

1966-3-454 Patterson Park Public Bath

One hundred children waiting their turn for a bath at one of the public baths,
Patterson Park – “Ain’t I ever going to get in,” August 1916, Harry B. Leopold,
Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.454, MdHS.

1966-3-002 City Springs, the Rocking Boat

The Rocking Boat, City Springs, Pembroke Memorial Playground, Pratt and Eden Streets, ca 1913, unidentified photographer, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.002, MdHS.

1966.3.131 "Patience." Ca. 1911-1936.

“Patience,” ca 1911-1936, C.G. Patterson, Bureau of Recreation Photograph Collection, BCLM Collection, 1966.3.131, MdHS.

PAM4969 Recreation Report 1938, map pages 9–10

Playground Athletic League, Recreation Report, 1938, map, pages 9–10, PAM 4969.

Sources and further reading:

  1. Robert Louis Stevenson, Children’s Playground Association of Baltimore, Biennial Report for 1907-1909 & 1908-1909 (Baltimore: Children’s Playground Association of Baltimore, Inc., 1909), 6.
  2. The United Women of Maryland, Constitution, Article I, 1897, Hoyt Collection of Ridgely Papers, MS 2891, folder 387, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Historical Society.
  3. Children’s Playground Association of Baltimore, Story of the Children’s Playground Work for 1897 (Baltimore: Children’s Playground Association, 1897), 7.
  4. Public Athletic League, First Annual Report and Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting (Baltimore: Public Athletic League Inc., 1909), 11.
  5. Public Athletic League, Statewide Athletics, Season 15 (Baltimore: Public Athletic League, Inc.,1915), 1.

Kessler, Barry and David Lang. The Play Life of a City: Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks, 1900-1955. Baltimore: BaltimoreCityLifeMuseums and the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, 1989.

Friends of DruidHillPark. Druid Hill Park Revisited: A Pictorial Essay. Baltimore: Friends of DruidHillPark, 1985.

Children’s Playground Association of Baltimore. Reports for 1906 – 1919. Baltimore: John S. Bridges & Co., 1906-1919.

Children’s Playground Association of Baltimore. Story of the Children’s Playground Work for 1898. Baltimore: Children’s Playground Association, 1898.


One Response to ““Happy play in grassy places:” Baltimore’s Playgrounds in Photographs, 1911-1936”

  1. I, as a grown man, still make a point to visit my local park at least once a week. Me time, get away from everything and clear my mind. Kinda like a safe zone.

    Posted by John | 26. Jul, 2018, 3:42 pm

Post a comment


Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Pinterest