Anthony J. Konstant, restaurateur, dies

Civil rights advocate led to the desegregation of U.S. 40 restaurants in 1961

  • Anthony J. Konstant
Anthony J. Konstant
August 23, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Anthony K. Konstant, a civil rights advocate and restaurateur who led the way in desegregating restaurants on U.S. 40 in northeast Maryland and later owned the landmark Williamsburg Inn in White Marsh for many years, died Friday of heart failure at Oak Crest Village in Parkville.

The former White Marsh resident was 87.

The son of Greek immigrant restaurateurs, Mr. Konstant was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., and moved in the 1930s with his parents to Hollins Street in Southwest Baltimore, and then to Bel Air.

He was a 1941 graduate of Bel Air High School and enlisted in the Navy during World War II, where he was a gunner's mate and participated in the invasion of the Philippines and Okinawa and in the occupation of Japan.

After the war, Mr. Konstant returned to Bel Air and later attended Pennsylvania State University on the G.I. Bill of Rights, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1953 in restaurant management.

In 1956, he opened the Redwood Inn in Aberdeen with his father and a business partner, Steve Karas.

Before Interstate 95, when U.S. 40 was the main north-south route through the state, restaurant owners had for years routinely denied serving meals to black travelers.

An international furor resulted in the spring of 1961, when William Fitzjohn, charge d'affaires for Sierra Leone in Washington, and his driver were refused service at a Howard Johnson restaurant in Hagerstown.

On June 26, 1961, another incident occurred when Adam Malick Soo, Chad's ambassador to the United States, who was traveling to Washington to present his credentials to President John F. Kennedy, stopped at a restaurant on U.S. 40 in Edgewood and was turned away.

Nine incidents had occurred that year along U.S. 40, which aroused the ire of President Kennedy and a suggestion from Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes that diplomats traveling U.S. 40 should select restaurants with an open-door policy.

Mr. Konstant and eight other restaurant owners came together to try to resolve the issue.

Mr. Konstant embarked upon visits to 35 restaurants along the highway in northeast Maryland to try and convince owners that dropping their objections to serving black customers was in their best interest.

"It is not an easy thing to go up to a Negro and tell him you won't serve him. It is morally and christianly wrong," Mr. Konstant told The Evening Sun at the time.

Deliberations with fellow restaurant owners eventually hit a snag, leaving Mr. Konstant frustrated and angry that the decision wasn't unanimous.

"But at most places the operators said integration was the only decent, moral thing to do, and that they were willing if everybody else was," he said.

"If I had to do it all over again I would have quietly desegregated and that would have been that. It's the only sensible thing to do," Mr. Konstant told the newspaper.

In early November, the Congress of Racial Equality threatened demonstrations and sit-ins with Freedom Riders at various unwelcoming establishments.

The restaurant owners eventually backed down and agreed to abandon their segregationist policies.

"I'm not bitter about C.O.R.E.'s role in this. Let's face it, we never would have done it if they had not applied pressure. They were fighting for a principle," said Mr. Konstant.

The Evening Sun observed that it was Mr. Konstant "who more than any one man was responsible for persuading a substantial number of restaurants along Route 40 to integrate."

"For his civil rights efforts, he received a letter of thanks from Robert F. Kennedy, who was then attorney general," said a nephew, David Geer of Kingsville.

In 1964, Mr. Konstant and his partner, Mr. Karas, whom he eventually bought out, purchased what was then called Brooks' Williamsburg Inn on U.S. 40 in White Marsh. It was known for its Colonial decor, beamed oak ceilings, great fireplace and waitresses wearing outfits from the era.

"The Williamsburg Inn is a Maryland restaurant from another era, when crab imperial was king and the size of manhattans was more important than the wine list," wrote Sun food critic Elizabeth Large in a 2000 review. "So many of these places have closed up shop that perhaps we ought to designate this one as an historical landmark, so future generations can see how Baltimoreans used to eat out."

The inn was known for its prime rib, steaks and treatment of traditional Maryland seafood dishes such as crab cakes, crab balls, stuffed oysters and crab lumps a la Norfolk with Smithfield ham.

"Lobster and crab imperial had generous lumps of shellfish in a buttery, mayonnaisey, deliciously wicked imperial sauce — by far the best of our choices. But soft-shelled crabs generously stuffed with crabs weren't far behind," wrote Ms. Large.

Until he moved to the Parkville retirement community five years ago, Mr. Konstant lived in a house behind the restaurant.

An impeccably dressed man, Mr. Konstant made his normal perch in the front of the restaurant, where in recent years he sat in a chair greeting diners.

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