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Fight for civil rights played out along U.S. 40 in Maryland

Double T Diner in Catonsville one of few restaurants still open from era

August 09, 2014|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Elizabeth Hughes, deputy director for the Maryland Historical Trust, said the organization is looking for ways to protect and showcase the state's cultural and historical assets — including civil rights landmarks under the five-year PreserveMaryland plan. One possibility is adding historical markers.

The association for the Maryland Historic National Road, which includes U.S. 40, is developing a mobile application to guide travelers and teach them about the history of the road, which was built as part of the nation's westward expansion. The app should be ready in January.

Sands, the civil rights leader, said people must take action to memorialize what they can so future generations will know what took place along the highway.

"It's amazing how fast history gets lost," he said in an interview at his Mount Airy home. "Thousands are gone. The heroes are dead."

Sands sat inside the home's solarium where framed prints of President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela hang. In the room, he piled copies of the Bible near a pair of bronzed sneakers that he wore to walk 542 miles between Easter Sunday and Pentecost in 2001 in a call for peace.

Today, Sands presides over White Rock Independent Methodist Episcopal Church in Sykesville. He spent much of his life working for equal rights — from picketing at the segregated restaurants along U.S. 40 to helping African-Americans and women find work in Alaska during the construction of the oil pipeline in the 1970s.

He remembers a day, although he's not sure of the year, when he went to a segregated restaurant in Havre de Grace along U.S. 40 with a white companion to have lunch, and they were greeted with a gun.

Neither was injured, and Sands said he wasn't afraid.

"I am not saying that because I am particularly brave," Sands said. "There is not a great deal to fear, I believe, about trying to do what's right."

Sands attended a summit, organized by the White House after Kennedy's 1961 telegram, at the officer's club at Aberdeen Proving Ground in his role as a director of a state civil rights office. He said the food was impressive — "so much so a lot of people thought the president was going to be there; it was grand" — and the meeting effective.

After the summit, Sands said, support began to grow for passage of a public accommodations law requiring restaurants and motels to serve all guests, regardless of color. High-level officials began testifying before the General Assembly to push for the law, activists continued to picket segregated restaurants and interracial teams fanned out across the state.

Kennedy's assistant chief of protocol for the state department, Pedro A. Sanjuan, pledged that White House officials would follow the summit with a "public education campaign" to include personal letters from the president and then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes to restaurant and motel owners.

Sanjuan continued to urge desegregation along U.S. 40, saying, "We cannot preach the values of democracy if we ignore the struggle for human dignity in our own country."

Tensions eased first for foreigners as restaurants, responding to Kennedy's call for voluntary action, began to serve African diplomats but not African-Americans. In 1962, a trio of reporters from the Afro-American newspaper drew attention to the situation by dressing in native African dress and seeking service at restaurants along the highway. They got to eat.

Motels and restaurants in 11 of the state's counties and Baltimore were required to serve all customers with the passage of the Public Accommodations Act in 1963. The law became effective in June 1964 after surviving a public referendum.

It was the first such law in a Southern state. The law took effect just weeks before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

David Taft Terry, an assistant Morgan State University professor and coordinator of its Museum Studies and Historical Preservation program, said the events that transpired along U.S. 40 during the civil rights era are emblematic of the "enduring black struggle" that began in Maryland and elsewhere as early as the 1930s.

"The Route 40 corridor was the public accommodations showdown," Terry said. "This is the main highway of America. This is how Americans came and how Americans went, and for it to be the center of change was natural."

Erdman, the Stevenson University professor, said she began her research on U.S. 40 as an undergraduate at Morgan looking for a topic for her thesis. She found a single paragraph in a book about the Cold War, and thought, "Is that my Route 40?"

Growing up in Harford County, Erdman said she never realized the importance of all that transpired along the roadway, its connection to the Cold War and the role the thoroughfare played in bringing equal rights to all Americans.

"That doesn't seem possible that Route 40 was something that Kennedy was involved with, and something the Russians knew about," she said. "When you learn about civil rights it's always Birmingham and Selma. You don't necessary hear 'Joppa' or 'Bel Air.' "

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.



About the series

Postcards from U.S. 40 is a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Have a suggestion for where we should go next? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/US40Share. Follow the series at baltimoresun.com/postcards.

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