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Swarthmore led her to civil rights work

Months before picketing, headlines, lawsuits, and arrests rocked Maryland’s Glen Echo Amusement Park in summer 1960, Esther Ridpath Delaplaine ’44 and Mary Lou Rogers Munts ’45 watched a throng of exuberant white schoolchildren dash from a yellow school bus toward the park’s pool and wondered where their black classmates were.

The pair, reunited by chance a few years earlier in the Bannockburn neighborhood of Bethesda, sought answers from the head of the county’s recreation department. 

“The black students get to swim,” he reassured them. “They go to a pool in Washington, D.C.”

“We said, ‘Aha! That’s separate, but not equal,’” remembers Delaplaine, who was recently honored with the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award in Montgomery County, Md., for her work to desegregate the park and to pass a public accommodations law in the county.

Outraged by the discrimination and led by Munts and Delaplaine, the left-leaning Bannockburn neighbors presented a united front to desegregate the park just before a wave of sit-ins by African-American students swept the country. 

In early June 1960, Howard University students had integrated lunch counters in nearby Alexandria, Va., and were confident of a quick victory at the park, too. With one day’s notice, Bannockburn organizers prepared lemonade and cookies for the student protesters. Delaplaine, her late husband, John ’41, and their five children under 10—one still in a stroller—walked the picket line every day that summer and organized their neighbors’ participation. The summer was fraught with students’ arrests, clashes with park security, and a menacing presence by the American Nazi Party.

“All of the credit goes to the students,” says Delaplaine, a retired social worker. “As white people, we were just spinning our wheels trying to get the park integrated—their presence and commitment gave it the thrust.”

The Bannockburn neighbors—composed largely of members of the old Left, some of whom had been in labor unions since the ’30s—were skilled protesters and organizers. As a picket captain, Delaplaine helped make placards for demonstrators, leaflets for passers-by, and schedules to keep the line manned. 

When summer 1960 drew to a close without acquiescence from the park’s owners, demonstrators vowed to return the following summer. Over the winter, the park owners announced a nonsegregation policy, and Munts and Delaplaine organized a countywide committee to support a model accommodation that banned racial discrimination in places serving the public. After extensive public hearings, it was passed.

“This achievement helped me realize how it is possible for a few concerned individuals to organize and bring about social change,” she says.

Delaplaine and Munts’s civil rights teamwork dates back to when they joined with other Swarthmoreans to successfully petition the College to admit its first black student in fall 1945. Munts, who died in 2013, served seven terms in the Wisconsin Assembly and was later appointed by the governor to head the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

In 2011, Delaplaine was inducted into the Human Rights Hall of Fame in Montgomery County for her role in the picketing, but she always emphasizes Munts’s leadership.

“Mary Lou was the real visionary—I was just her lieutenant,” Delaplaine says, adding with a laugh, “I get all the credit because I’ve lived so long.” 

Delaplaine, who became a Quaker after graduating from Swarthmore, nowadays never leaves home without a Black Lives Matters pin on her lapel. Each Sunday, she holds a sign in a Black Lives Matter public vigil near her meetinghouse. 

“Swarthmore was my alma mater in the truest sense,” she says. “It was my whole education. It’s where I got my values.”