The highway in the United States that helped break apartheid
(image credit: PL Archive / Alamy)
Along US Route 40, African diplomats were routinely denied service in local institutions. But their treatment led to a civil rights struggle that led to the outlawing of apartheid.
Adam Malik Su had a headache. It had been several hours on his journey from New York to Washington, D.C., and after his limousine crossed into Maryland, he asked his driver to find a place to stop.
A few miles later, the newly appointed ambassador to the United States from the African nation of Chad boarded a restaurant along U.S. Route 40 and ordered a cup of coffee.
The answer on a summer day in 1961 might change history.
The restaurant owner’s wife refused to serve the diplomat because he was black. “It just looked like an ordinary windmill [N-word] to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador,” Mrs. Leroy Merritt later told National Life magazine. I said: There is no table service here.
The insult sparked an international incident, and made the front page of newspapers across Africa and Asia. Soon, diplomats from Niger, Cameroon, and Togo reported similar experiences in Maryland restaurants. Like the others, they traveled the same highway from the United Nations in New York to their embassies in Washington. Their treatment led to a human rights struggle that many did not remember that paved the way for the prohibition of apartheid in the United States.
Today, not even a sign commemorates the dozens of demonstrations that followed along the road, and most travelers zoom in on Interstate 95, one of the country’s busiest highways. But if they look carefully, they can find traces of the fascinating story of U.S. Route 40, which runs parallel to Interstate 95 in northern Maryland.
Image copyright Larry Bleiberg Image caption The stone marks the Mason Dixon Line, which divides the north and south of the United States
So I found myself pushing weeds aside along a busy four-lane road in search of a half-buried stone that marked the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary between the northern and southern United States. On the eastern edge, the line marks the boundary between the states of Delaware and Maryland. Local historian Mike Dixon showed me where to find it. He said, “This line had a great meaning.”
Although Delaware had a few separate restaurants at the time, this was the norm in Maryland. In 1961, once travelers crossed into the state, they were subject to the laws of the South, in which blacks were routinely denied service in restaurants, stores, and hotels.
Stokely Carmichael, a pioneer in the Black Power movement, faced regular humiliation as a college student when he stopped for meals along the way. “I developed a deep hatred – one shared by many – for Route 40,” he wrote in his book Ready for Revolution.
But as soon as the region’s entrenched racism began to trap diplomats, US President John F. Kennedy was forced to take notice. The events were an embarrassment in the middle of the Cold War, as they threatened the global influence of the United States. A State Department official shared his frustration with a reporter at the time: “The damn limousines seem to run out of fuel as soon as they get to Maryland.”
Image copyright Larry Bleiberg Image caption Along US Route 40, African diplomats were routinely denied service in local institutions
And Kennedy wasn’t particularly generous about that either. “Can’t you tell these African ambassadors not to drive on Route 40. It’s a hell of a road,” he complained to a staff member. “I wouldn’t think of driving from New York to Washington. Tell them to fly.”
The issues were hardly new. Nearly 60 years before diplomats’ complaints were filed, Maryland passed a law requiring racial segregation on public transportation. Passengers on the black train were forced to transfer into a “colored car” when they arrived in Maryland. A few months later, the black law professor refused to give up his seat and was arrested, leading to a lawsuit that eventually led to part of the law being overturned. The court prohibited segregation of passengers from states whose flight originated outside Maryland but allowed it to do so for those traveling within the state.
Today, a small brick train station, off Route 40 in Elkton, Maryland, is used for storage. Dozens of Amtrak trains zoom daily, with no indication that the city has for some time been a station for sorting passengers by race.
In the early 1960s, sorting was taking place in restaurants, bars, and hotels. In the weeks following the incident with Ambassador Sue, the federal government quietly began pressuring Maryland restaurants to serve diplomats traveling through the area. But soon some companies agreed to comply, and then the problem flared up again.
Today, Elkton Station, a small, brick train station in Maryland, just off Route 40, is used for storage
Three black reporters from the newspaper “Afro-American” in Maryland put on a complicated charade. Two wear tailcoats and hats, and a third wears a leopard skin robe and crown. They introduced themselves at Route 40 restaurants, claiming to be officials from the non-East African nation of Goban. One of them, who called himself Urfa (spelling Afro inverted), impersonated the position of Minister of Finance. In their next article, the journalists documented that they were served food in most restaurants as long as they pretended not to be Americans.
The article angered many. “It will drive you crazy if you think about it long enough,” said Charles Mason, a black Baltimore resident who was 21 at the time.
He worked with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), a biracial nationalist group dedicated to desegregation, organizing picket lines along Route 40. The group called the Freedom Rides effort, a reference to the movement fighting segregation on buses and in public accommodations across the Deep South . CORE distributed a brochure listing restaurants that it claimed catered to all travelers and those that remain isolated. She urged the protesters to “help complete the task.” “Ending Racial Discrimination Along US 40.”
Mason, now 82, joined the demonstrations on the weekends, in a suit and tie, while the women wore dresses. “We wanted to show a good picture.” Often, they were greeted by hostile crowds.
Image copyright Larry Bleiberg Image caption The Conference on Racial Equality (CORE) distributed a brochure listing which restaurants were and were not separated.
“We were afraid,” he said. “We were all afraid.” He remembers the whites screaming and yelling and wanting to hit me in the head.
Mason will be on display in the Black History exhibit that opens in May at the Maryland Center for History and Culture. Amy Nathan, a Maryland author who writes about the civil rights movement, said the recognition was long overdue.
“This was a solo effort by people who had just had enough, and saw that things needed to change,” Nathan said. “They have been walking back and forth in front of a roadside restaurant, but it is good to remember that what may appear to be a simple effort, when combined with other efforts, can have a big result.”
Gone are most of the businesses that faced the protests long ago, replaced by Gaza strip malls, fast food restaurants and gas stations. But little remains.
In one, Bar-H Chuck’s home in the Northeast Maryland Township, four protesters were arrested when they refused to leave. Dixon told me that after they were imprisoned, three went on hunger strikes. The county sheriff sent the strikers to a state mental hospital, saying inmates should be crazy for refusing food. But within 24 hours, they were back in jail. “The state psychiatrist said: ‘They’re not crazy, they’re just protesting for social justice,'” Dixon said.
Richard Pipath, from Trinidad and Tobago, and his wife Marlena own Ray’s Caribbean American Food (Credit: Larry Bleiberg)
The restaurant is now called North East Family Restaurant and is owned by Ed Omar, who is originally from Alexandria, Egypt. He never heard the story until I stopped one morning. “I just learned something new,” he said. “I’m from North Africa. Look at me. I’ll be the first to kick him out.”
Waitress April Jones can’t imagine her refusal to serve a black person. “Are you serious?” She said. “It’s crazy. He’s changed a lot.”
I had a similar experience less than 20 miles down the street at the former Sportsmen Grill, which in 1961 encountered white people holding signs with messages such as: “Let’s have Dinner Together” and “Let’s End Racism in America Now.”
Today, the restaurant in Aberdeen operates as Ray’s Caribbean American Food. Owner Rayshad Beepath, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, was astonished when I showed him a photo of the protest. “I had no idea, no proof,” he said. “I just visited Google. It’s great to put it on the wall.”
Today, the former Sportsmen Grill in Aberdeen operates as Ray’s Caribbean American Food
The demonstrations had an effect. In 1963, Maryland passed a law banning discrimination in hotels, restaurants, and other accommodations. said James Carmel, a university professor and director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which has created a website and app (IOS or Android) documenting local freedom riding.
But the victory came too late for Route 40. On November 14, 1963, John F. Kennedy landed by helicopter to the area to designate a new limited-access highway that would become part of Interstate 95.
Today, visitors who stop for a bathroom break or takeout at the Biden Welcome Center on the highway can view photos of Kennedy with dignitaries, and even watch a video of his brief speech.
In one of his last public appearances before his assassination eight days later, Kennedy stood on a platform built on the Maryland and Delaware border – the Mason Dixon Line – to mark the road. He noted that it will play an important role in connecting cities on the east coast of the United States. And although Kennedy didn’t mention it, there’s another benefit, too: Travelers on the new highway won’t have to drive on Route 40.
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