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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

When Rulings Don't Count

These dramatic events in the courts, including the highest court in the Nation, did not mean that day-to-day life changed overnight for African-Americans.

In 1989, journalist Eugene L. Meyer wrote about the challenges of daily travel along one of the Nation's main pre-Interstate roads, U.S. 1 in Maryland, during the transitional years. In Elkridge, he came to the Skyline Motel. "The wooden sign remained at the side of the road, but it was faded and the old motel above it looked abandoned." Although the motel was closed, owners Daniel and Dorothy Duffy still lived in the office section. They had purchased the motel in 1952, but the opening of the access-controlled Baltimore-Washington Parkway parallel to U.S. 1 in 1954 took much of the traffic from the old highway. Travel-oriented businesses along U.S. 1 had to decide their future:

They closed it [in 1957], they said, because the financial and psychic expense of modernizing a dying business was just not worth it. And besides, they added, they would have had to integrate. "We never did" accept blacks, Dorothy Duffy said. "When they passed that [public accommodations] law, we had to take everyone."

Few of the U.S. 1 motels "had earlier bucked the Jim Crow tradition" (not mandated by law) that permeated Maryland into the 1960s. Meyer reported that two, Cedar Motel and the Valencia Motel in Laurel, did integrate:

"We didn't have that much to offer, so whoever came got a room here," said Morris Pet, the sixty-seven-year-old proprietor of the Cedar Motel. "Not too many white people came in because they always looked for the better places."

When the Valencia Motel opened in 1947, it "offered more amenities than the Cedar Motel, including rubber-tiled floors, steel furniture, tiled showers, room radios, and, after a while, coin-operated television." The owner, Ida Fischer, told Meyer that she "always thought it was terrible that black people didn't have the right to stay everyplace."

Still, Meyer said, "few blacks chanced humiliation by stopping at motels that weren't clearly identified as 'Colored.'" He added:

Those that were went unlisted in the AAA guidebooks. While the auto association campaigned against billboards and for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, staffers I consulted could find no mention in old issues of the club magazine of the racial barriers that were an integral part of life on U.S. 1.

Meyer added that other facilities accepted African-Americans. McClain's Motel and Restaurant, which opened in 1949, had been owned and operated by an African-American couple. Mrs. Mary McClain told Meyer, "the black people traveling, they found a place to stay." Hall's Motel in Elkridge had been white owned, but was "always open to blacks and [was] still serving a largely black clientele." The Log Cabin was "a truck stop catering mostly to blacks with its menu of chitterlings, maw, and ribs." [Meyer, Eugene L., Maryland : Lost and Found , The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, p. 129-130]

Although President Eisenhower was not eager to enter the civil rights debate, he was confronted with a Cold War diplomatic reason for involvement, as Packard described:

At the outset of his administration, Eisenhower's United Nations representative clearly warned him that America's notorious racist practices amounted to a "diplomatic Achilles' heel." While Washington ceaselessly sought support from new and third world member states against Soviet-backed initiatives, those countries had a hard time offering sympathy for a nation in which black and brown diplomats couldn't sit at a lunch counter or rent a hotel room in its capital. In the early days of his presidency, the strongest factor in Eisenhower's order to desegregate Washington's public accommodations was likely not that black Americans had for so long suffered the indignity of Jim Crow in the nation's capital, but that important black foreigners were now being humiliated. [American Nightmare , p. 229, emphasis in original]

This would be a growing problem as Europe's colonial governments in Africa were overturned. Africans were increasingly part of the diplomatic corps that traveled around the United States.

One diplomatic incident, which occurred in the spring of 1961 shortly after President Eisenhower left office, illustrates the type of embarrassment Packard cited. William Fitzjohn, charge d'affaires for the Republic of Sierre Leone in west Africa, drove from Washington to Pittsburgh for a lecture. When his driver stopped at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Hagerstown, Maryland, they were both refused service because of their color. Appalled by reports of the snub, President John F. Kennedy invited Fitzjohn to the White House. The president of Howard Johnson's apologized, while Hagerstown Mayor Winslow F. Burhans invited him to a dinner with the city's leading citizens.

Soon, however, another incident occurred. On June 26, 1961, Ambassador Adam Malick of the Republic of Chad in northcentral Africa was driving to Washington on U.S. 40 to present his credentials to President Kennedy when he was refused service after stopping in Edgewood for a meal.

By one count, nine such incidents involving diplomats occurred in 1961 alone. In a 2005 column, Frederick N. Rasmussen of The Baltimore Sun recalled the Governor's reaction:

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."

. . . Restaurant and café 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."

. . . 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. [Rasmussen, Frederick N., "Racial bias revealed along U.S. 40 in 1961," The Baltimore Sun , October 8, 2005]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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