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Washington Post
Sharon Langley, with carousel manager Stan Hunter, on the horse she rode 50 years ago today.

The merry-go-round of history

There will be many commemorations of today’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Once these events are over, there will remain several reminders of the march and its message. One is on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where the words “I Have a Dream” are engraved where King stood to deliver his speech. Another is at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, where an excerpt appears on the base of the King’s statue.

There is yet another: a historical marker that has just been installed in an unusual place – at the merry-go-round on the National Mall, not too far from the Lincoln Memorial. This plaque tells of the role that the merry-go-round played in the hope-filled spirit of Aug. 28, 1963.

On that 50-year-ago day, the carousel stood about 40 miles away, at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park on the outskirts of Baltimore. After nearly a decade of nonviolent civil rights protests there, Gwynn Oak’s owners agreed finally to end the park’s whites-only policy on Aug. 28, 1963 – the same day as the march.

The first African-American child to go on a ride at the park that day was 11-month-old Sharon Langley, who took a spin on the merry-go-round with her father, Charles C. Langley Jr., standing by her side. Two white children climbed onto horses on either side of her, a boy and a girl about 6 years old. They were big enough to hold on by themselves, but the girl’s mother asked Langley if he would keep an eye on her daughter to make sure she was all right when the ride started moving. Langley said he was glad to help. As the ride’s wooden platform began to turn and the horses started moving up and down, a gentle breeze fluttered the collar of Sharon’s frilly, pink dress. Her eyes grew wide with excitement or perhaps a touch of fear.

The next day, amid all the news stories about the March on Washington, there were also stories on Sharon Langley’s merry-go-round ride. Three kids – one black and two white – riding together provided an example of the harmony King spoke about when he hoped that one day black children and white children would regard each other as “sisters and brothers.” The stories also mentioned the parent-to-parent cooperation, an interchange typical of how parents help one another but which held special meaning at this park.

Just eight weeks earlier, a segregationist mob hurled insults, and sometimes rocks, at the nearly 400 civil rights protesters arrested during two large demonstrations at the park, one on July 4 and another three days later. Among those arrested were more than 20 members of the clergy, including many white clergy.

Abundant media coverage, combined with a local judicial system stretched to the limit, led Baltimore County Executive Spiro T. Agnew to start negotiations. In one week, an agreement was reached: The park would drop segregation.

Gwynn Oak struggled financially after desegregation, losing many white customers. Flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 forced the park to close. But the merry-go-round survived. It was bought by the Smithsonian’s concessionaire and moved to the Mall in 1981.

Its current owners, who took over in 1988, had no idea of their merry-go-round’s connection to the March on Washington until a book I wrote on the link came out two years ago. Now they have embraced that history. They identified the horse Sharon Langley rode in 1963 and engraved her name on a brass plate attached to the saddle. A few weeks ago, Langley, an elementary school administrator in Los Angeles, came to Washington to be reunited with the merry-go-round she rode 50 years ago.

As visitors line up to buy tickets for a ride, its historical marker can remind them of the march and give them a personal sense of what the Jim Crow era of segregation was like, that it could even have put its grip on a merry-go-round.

Amy Nathan is the author of “Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement.” She wrote this for the Washington Post.