50 years ago, department store lunch counters opened to blacks

A Morgan State freshman was among those leading this integration movement

March 27, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

Events that played out 50 years ago this spring in Baltimore signaled a civil rights victory. Our public schools had been successfully and peacefully desegregated a few years earlier, but that was public policy. Private business was another matter.

Blacks could not be served at the lunch counters and tearooms of Baltimore's major department stores, but the pressure for change was clearly in the air that Easter season.

Manuel Deese was then an 18-year-old freshman at what was then Morgan State Teachers College. He was from Pittsburgh and was black. In Pennsylvania, he could try on clothes and shoes in department stores. He could be served at their restaurants. He came to Baltimore to study political science and found what conditions were like below the Mason-Dixon line.

"I went downtown one day and went into a White Tower and tried to order a hamburger," he said. "The manager came over and said, 'Here is your bag and get out.' It was so stupid."

Deese was one of four people arrested in an anti-segregation incident near Morgan at the Northwood Shopping Center, at Loch Raven Boulevard and Havenwood Road. It became one of Baltimore's battlegrounds in the racial integration controversy, both at the restaurant and at the adjacent Northwood movie theater.

The Hecht-May Co. had a branch department store at Northwood. On the top floor was its Rooftop Restaurant, where Deese was arrested when he tried to gain entry on a busy Saturday, March 26, 1960. The restaurant had its own entrance, and private detectives had been posted at its doors as he attempted to enter. There had been peaceful picketing as well.

Downtown that day, blacks were attempting to buy lunch at Baltimore's four downtown department stores. They were successful at one store, Hochschild Kohn, at Howard and Lexington streets.

A Hochschild's official said that "if the community allows it, and this includes our competitors, we'll continue to serve Negroes." Its open-door policy was not shared by its competitors.

That day, Stewart's shut its food counters to all, white and black, and closed the food operation. About 20 blacks entered a Hutzler's restaurant and waited for three hours, but were not served.

Deese and three others - Herman D. Richard Jr., Walter R. Dean Jr. and Philip H. Savage - were all taken to the Northeastern District police station and locked up for much of the evening. They were charged with unlawful entry. They pleaded not guilty, and asked for a jury trial.

They were represented by Robert B. Watts, a much-respected black attorney who was later made a judge. He cited "constitutional questions" and asked that a trial be held downtown. The four posted bail.

On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960, the controversy was resolved when The Baltimore Sun reported that a key store executive had changed his mind. Albert D. Hutzler had a meeting with civil rights leaders Furman Templeton, David Glenn and Watts. His store announced, "We have lifted restrictions. Negroes will be served in our restaurants." As Hutzler's went, Hecht-May followed. The store opened its doors - and counters as well.

Deese went on to be named Morgan's 1981 alumnus of the year. He became an employee of Pittsburgh's Mayor's Commission on Human Relations and was later city manager of Richmond, Va.

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