Racial bias revealed along U.S. 40 in 1961


Back Story


Nipsey Russell, the popular satiric black stand-up comic who died Sunday, was revered for his one-liners and pointed stories.

His New York Times obituary recalled one of his favorites. It was based on an incident that happened in northeastern Maryland, when a Ghanaian delegate to the United Nations, who was driving to Washington, stopped for lunch at a restaurant and was refused service.

Russell's story went this way:

"But I'm the delegate from Ghana," the diplomat said.

"Well, you ain't Ghana eat here," the waitress said.

Laughter aside, Russell had called attention to a serious racial problem that existed in Maryland, when restaurant owners could legally refuse service to African-Americans, and they had gotten away with it unchallenged for years.

Early in the spring of 1961, a snub turned into an international incident, when William Fitzjohn, charge d'affaires for Sierre Leone in Washington, en route to Pittsburgh for a lecture, stopped for dinner with his driver at a Howard Johnson restaurant on the outskirts of Hagerstown.

Both men were refused service because of their color.

President John F. Kennedy, appalled by what had transpired, received Fitzjohn in the White House. The president of Howard Johnson's apologized for the snub while the mayor of Hagerstown, Winslow F. Burhans, invited him to a dinner with several of the city's leading citizens.

On June 26, 1961, another incident occurred when Adam Malick Soo, Chad's ambassador to the United States, who was en route to Washington to present his credentials to Kennedy, stopped on U.S. 40 in Edgewood for a meal. He was refused service.

There were other incidents involving the wife of the ambassador of Niger and two officials from Mali. They eventually totaled nine during 1961.

While Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes apologized for the incidents, he also suggested that African diplomats traveling U.S. 40 should pick restaurants with an open-door policy.

U.S. 40, then the major route for diplomats traveling between New York and Washington, fittingly became the target of Kennedy's efforts in ending the practice of denying service not only to black diplomats but African-Americans as well.

He asked Maryland civic leaders to extend "voluntary cooperation for an immediate end to segregation in restaurants and other places of public service."

Responding to Tawes' suggestion that African diplomats be selective in their choice of restaurants, former Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, said: "It is a terrible reflection on this state that this thing [rebuffs to diplomats] should be repeated time and time again after the president urged us to correct this condition."

Restaurant and cafe owners along U.S. 40 were slow to move, believing it was their right to serve, or withhold service from, whomever they pleased.

"Frankly, I can't afford it," said Mrs. Charles Krell, owner of the Suburban Inn near Aberdeen. "I'd lose all of my white customers."

In 1961, the hypocrisy of the situation was exposed when James Debois Williams Jr., then managing editor of the Afro-American, authorized three of his reporters, Rufus Wells, Herbert Mangrum and George W. Collins to try to get served in several U.S. 40 white-only restaurants.

Accompanying the trio of reporters, two of whom were dressed in cutaways, top hats and pinstripe trousers, while the other wore native African dress, was staff photographer I. Henry Phillips Sr.

Mangrum was supposed to be Sorfa (the name being "Afros" backward) Adibuwa, the "finance minister" of Gabon, while Collins was Luaua Aklulu, his aide and a Harvard-educated translator.

Nowhere during their daylong perambulations were the "diplomats" refused service, and at the end of the day, they decided to dine at Miller Brothers, the fashionably exclusive downtown restaurant.

After enjoying an order of soup, the trio left a half-hour later, and were whisked away in a waiting limousine.

Theodore Cook, the restaurant's headwaiter, told The Evening Sun, that in view of what had happened in Hagerstown and Tawes' request that "restaurateurs be particularly careful and courteous to foreign dignitaries, I seated them."

"We wanted to dramatize the stupidity inherent in a situation in which visitors from overseas are treated better than persons born on these shores," wrote editor Williams in an editorial regarding the hoax.

"But somewhere along the line everybody seems to have forgotten about the colored American. ... Sure the whole thing was staged, but we hope that we've helped expose just how silly this question of racial discrimination really is."

On March 30, 1963, Tawes signed into law a public accommodation bill, making Maryland the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to ban discrimination against African-Americans in restaurants and hotels. The law became effective statewide after the 1964 elections.


Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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