When the picketing started at Glen Echo Amusement Park, I was 14 and my mother wouldn’t let me go.
“It’s too dangerous,” she said. “Besides, you have a job.”
My family had moved to the suburban Maryland neighborhood called Bannockburn two years earlier. I had my first job, an unpaid position in the summer recreation program run by the county and held at the elementary school across the street from my new house. I liked the job, helping little kids make lanyards from gimp and keeping them from licking the salty homemade play dough from their fingers. I liked learning new skills, like how to handle a seizure in a four-year-old, even if I had to unlearn it in nursing school 15 years later.
But I really wanted to join the picket line.
Glen Echo Amusement Park was near my home, and I had enjoyed the Tilt-A-Whirl and the bumper cars, riding the rollercoaster and swimming in the Crystal Pool. I fantasized about riding the Tunnel of Love with a boyfriend.
I could enjoy those summertime treats because I am white.
It was June 1960, just a few months after the Greensboro sit-in. Students from Howard University organized the protest at the segregated amusement park. Many of my neighbors joined the picket line, bringing lemonade and homemade signs to the gates of Glen Echo. The Bannockburn picketers were white. Many were Jews, including several Holocaust survivors.
Bannockburn was not an ordinary suburb. It was started in 1946 as a cooperative housing community by New Deal Democrat families, mostly Jewish, many employed by the federal government. By the time my family moved in, the demographics had widened, but the neighborhood culture was still left-of-center with a strong sense of community. I recently asked my father why we moved to Bannockburn. “Your mother and I liked co-ops. Remember the babysitting co-op when you were a kid?” he reminded me. “Our grocery store was a co-op too and Group Health was the first HMO in the country.”
Which is why my mother’s response about the picket line surprised me. I argued with her about it – we argued a lot in those days – but she was adamant. I asked my father if I could go, but he wouldn’t contradict his wife. He rarely did. So they agreed: I wasn’t allowed to join the picket line.
I didn’t go.
The picketing went on all summer. It was somewhat dangerous, I suppose. There were counter-protesters from the American Nazi Party, as well as beatings, arrests, and a hunger strike in jail. There were reports of shots fired. Even without my help, the protestors were successful. The Park owners gave in and integrated Glen Echo the next summer.
Fast forward fifty years and I’m writing my third novel, Kinship of Clover. I’m developing the back-story of a main character, Flo, who grew up in a neighborhood much like Bannockburn. Flo is a few years older than me. She is braver than me. Her mother also forbid her to picket Glen Echo, but my character Flo went anyway.
Her disobedience changed the direction of her life. She became deeply involved with the protest, with the civil rights movement, with radical politics. In my novel, she is in her mid-70’s and facing dementia. She is determined to communicate to younger people what she has learned from her experiences as a lifelong activist. As she reflects on her life choices, images of the Glen Echo picket line resurface powerfully in her compromised brain.
I’ve been fascinated for decades by the question of how we develop our political opinions, and how we transmit what we’ve learned and what we believe to the generations that follow us. The older I get, the less clear it becomes. I watch the offspring of comrades turn in incomprehensible directions; young people from conservative families embrace progressive activism; and newer movements sometimes make the same crippling mistakes we did. What is the magical balance, I wonder, between sharing our history and our passions with the children and youth in our lives and encouraging them to think, critically, for themselves?
In my novel, Flo disobeyed her mother and joined the picket line. Perhaps her parents’ lack of understanding, or their fear for their daughter, encouraged adolescent Flo to disregard their rules and strike out for herself. Fifty years later, Flo’s conversations with young Jeremy oddly echo the earlier conflict, only this time Flo is the elder who believes that she knows the right way. Jeremy is 19, biracial, and a climate activist. For him, global warming and race and plant extinctions are all part of the same struggle. Flo is dubious about that perspective. “What does that have to do with class struggle?” she asks him.
This is, for me, one of the most intriguing and satisfying things about writing fiction. In the heady mix of memory and imagination, you can explore history and rewrite the meanings. You can try out different lives, different paths and journeys. You can take the other fork in the road. Flo is not me, but she opens up my past and my memories in a way that invites introspection as well as dramatic reinterpretation.
With Flo’s help, writing this novel helped me to understand that the Glen Echo protest was a watershed moment in my life, even though I never joined the picket line. It was the first time I understood that my sense of justice, risk, and consequences might be different from my parents. As a child, I shared their perspective and beliefs, but as an adult, I would have to make my own way.
Joining the Glen Echo integration movement changed the direction of my character’s life. Not being allowed to join that picket line may have changed mine.
Ellen Meeropol is the author of three novels, House Arrest, On Hurricane Island and Kinship of Clover. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Bridges, The Writers Chronicle, Pedestal, Rumpus, Portland Magazine and Women’s Times, among others. She is a founding board member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and the author of their dramatic program, “Carry it Forward,” most recently produced in New York City in 2013. Ellen lives in western Massachusetts, where she serves as the Program Committee chair for the Straw Dog Writers Guild.