The Playground War

Tattnall Square Park is located near Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. In the early 60s black Americans decided to make a push for their civil rights as citizens of the United States. The actions they took were for the same rights as white citizens, including the simple things such as the right to use public parks, access to housing and the right to ride on public transportation and sit wherever a seat was open, not just a few rows at the back of the bus, which were almost always standing room only.

The Playground War began when some black youths tried to integrate the park. The grassy field dotted with large trees contained a playground for the public. I remember the times I would go to the park with my friends and play on the swings as a youth.

And I watched, embarrassed, as  little black kids walked by, looking at us, then kept on walking, knowing they couldn’t go there. It was for whites only. In fact there were a number of places a black person couldn’t go because the signs were clearly  marked: Whites Only. At drinking fountains, there were signs that read White and others that read Colored. The same with rest rooms.

J.J. Newberry, a department store at a Macon mall, had four restrooms; one for white men, one for colored men, one for white women and one for colored women. Once I went to the water fountains to get a drink of water in the store and saw a little black boy, about three, standing on a step so he could reach the water. I saw his father rush over to the fountain, pick up his son and look around with an expression of fear on his face. He said something quietly to his son and took him to the correct fountain. The little boy had a confused look in his eyes. He still had a lot learn about racial etiquette, as Georgia author Lillian Smith described it in her book,  ‘Killers of the Dream’:

“From the time that little southern children take their first step they learn their ritual, for Southern Tradition leads them through its intricate movements. And some, if their faces are dark, learn to bend, hat in hand; and some, if their faces are white, learn to hold their heads up high. Some step off the sidewalk while others pass by in arrogance. Bending, shoving, genuflecting, ignoring, stepping off, demanding, giving in, avoiding…

“So we learned the dance that cripples the human spirit, step by step by step, we who were white and we who were colored, day by day, hour by hour, year by year until the movements were reflexes and made for the rest of our lives without thinking.”

Blacks were afraid to cross the line, fearing retribution from whites. But a movement had started across the south and began to grow. People were marching peacefully, having sit-ins at segregated restaurants where “colored” people had to pick up their order at the back door. Or they were simply refused service. But generally in Macon things didn’t get out of hand.

The playground at Tattnall Square became a  topic of the community. They asserted their citizenship. They had rights.  But it took an incident to get the change started:

“On Monday, April 1, 1963, a fight broke out as black youth(s) attempted to integrate the segregated park. On Tuesday, April 2, 1963, a group of white citizens attacked blacks with sticks and rocks in Tattnall Square Park in Macon. Due to increased racial incidents at the local parks, the police closed the park under instructions from Mayor Ed Wilson.” (Savannah News, April 3, 1963) Click on today’s image of the park.

There were a number of confrontations, with thousands on both sides but over time peace won out. In 1964 the Civil Rights Bill was passed and the mayor, police chief, local business and black community leaders all agreed to cooperate. And the new national law was implemented successfully. (Macon Telegraph, July 3, 1964)

And the showdown at Tattnall Square Park was more than just a fight over a playground. It was part of something much bigger.

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