Scores of visitors pass by this iconic carousel every summer as they walk the gravel paths along the National Mall and Air and Space Museum. They may not realize that this rotating children’s ride has a history more interesting than its appearance would suggest.
The carousel was originally built by the Allen Hershell Company in the 1940s for the Gwynn Oak amusement park near Baltimore. The machine represented something of a technical achievement: the only carousel made with the horses four abreast, all jumping. But that wasn’t the only thing unprecedented about the ride.
The Gwynn Oak was originally a segregated amusement park that barred non-whites from entry. After a decade of nonviolent protests, the park management finally agreed to desegregation on August 28, 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. On that day, 11-month old Sharon Langley became the first African-American child to ride this carousel, along with her father and two white children.
Carousel historian Amy Nathan described in the Washington Post how 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 at the march, when he hoped that one day black children and white children would regard each other as “sisters and brothers.”
The carousel features brightly painted horses, a few non-moving seats, and one sea dragon. All are welcome to ride, as long as you’re willing to pay the ticket price of $3.50.
Know Before You Go
Easy walking access to the carousel is available from the Smithsonian metro station. The carousel is open daily from 10 to 6 (10-5 in the winter).