We often remember the civil rights movement as a few iconic events that took place at famous landmarks—the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the National Mall. Programming intern Alex Kamins learned that it took place all over the country, including a small roadside eatery in the middle of Maryland.
I recently drove about 40 miles to go to a diner. There's nothing wrong with the diners closer to home here in Washington, D.C., but I knew the Double T Diner in Catonsville, Maryland, had a story to tell—along with some solid diner fare.
Located on Route 40, once the main connection between Washington, D.C., and New York, the Double T offers a retro setting designed to evoke the 1950s, complete with neon colors, chrome design, and a jukebox on every table. The clientele tends to be locals looking for a bite to eat and perhaps a friendly chat. I managed to go the day before the Fourth of July and it was packed. People were lining up in droves in order to get a table. As I was by myself, I managed to sneak in under the radar and find a spot at the counter.
As popular as it is, I don't think most of the people squeezing into the Double T know that 55 years ago, this diner refused to serve African American patrons. Back in 1961, a demonstration took place there in which students took days off from classes, risked their lives, and stood outside and picketed—probably feeling fear and apprehension every minute they were there. They were fighting for one simple cause: that African Americans would be treated as equals and that the diner would drop its Jim Crow-era segregationist policy.
With the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960, many people (particularly African Americans) hoped that he might lead the country away from segregation. But progress was slow and Kennedy's focus seemed to be on the Soviet Union and the threat of communism spreading around the globe.
However, a few events in the first couple years of his term forced him to acknowledge that something had to be done about civil rights in America. Starting in 1960, the United States received an increase in diplomatic representatives from Africa. Multiple African diplomats, in particular William Fitzjohn of Sierra Leone and Adam Malik Sow of Chad, were harassed and beaten at a number of establishments as they made their way along Route 40 from Washington, D.C., to the United Nations headquarters in New York. In an August 1960 article for the Washington Post titled "D.C. is a Hardship Post for Negro Diplomats," reporter Milton Viorst was able to convey to his readers the state of affairs for these diplomats as they made their way to D.C.: "[The diplomat] has learned to live in 'colored' hotels, eat in 'colored' restaurants, and spend his evenings in 'colored' movies. When asked how he accepts it, he shrugs and calls it a hazard of his profession."
While Kennedy publicly apologized to Fitzjohn and Sow for what happened, he saw these incidents as a thorn in his side in terms of his overall plan for the time he was in office. According to Nick Bryant'sThe Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality, he even chastised the African diplomats (not directly, but in a private phone call with one of his advisors) for taking Route 40 saying, "Can't you tell those African ambassadors not to drive on Route 40? It's a hell of a road—I used to drive it years ago, but why would anyone want to drive it today when you can fly? Tell these ambassadors I wouldn't think of driving from New York to Washington. Tell them to fly!"
Kennedy created the Special Protocol Service Section at the State Department and installed Pedro Sanjuan as its head. Sanjuan personally visited every establishment along Route 40 and pleaded with them to cease segregation, presenting himself as representing the president, complete with a letter from Kennedy. As a result of his visits, more than half of the 78 restaurants along Route 40 voluntarily complied with his request.
According to Raymond Arsenault's Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Sanjuan plead his case to Maryland lawmakers by saying, "when an American citizen humiliates a foreign representative or another American citizen for racial reasons, the results can be just as damaging to his country as the passing of secret information to the enemy." Unfortunately for Kennedy, he didn't know this twist was coming. According to Nicholas Murray Vachon's The Junction: The Cold War, Civil Rights, and the African Diplomats of Maryland's Route 40, Kennedy aide Harris Wofford remembers that when it came to civil rights, the president made decisions "hurriedly, at the last minute, in response to Southern political pressures without careful consideration of an overall strategy." He felt as though his involvement in this crisis would make America look weak in the eyes of the rest of the world and that the Soviet Union would take advantage of the situation, which they eventually did. Bryant describes in The Bystander how Soviet officials in New York "offered to sign leases on behalf of at least three United Nations-based African diplomats who had been rebuffed by white landlords."
Around this time, African American students saw a strategic opportunity to increase the visibility of the movement. Vachon describes how the students donned dashikis, robes, and fake accents and proceeded to go to a number of establishments along Route 40. The response they received was mixed but often cordial. One place demanded to see their credentials while others either served them in another room or treated them as regular customers.
Bryant continues his narrative by describing how Sanjuan, frustrated that "the administration was unwilling to enact new legislation," began to turn to civil rights groups such as CORE to organize and picket the remaining segregated institutions along Route 40. CORE (short for the Congress of Racial Equality) decided to initiate a Freedom Motorcade that was to be scheduled for November 11, but just a few days before it was to take place, "the majority of restaurant owners along U.S. #40 agreed to desegregate," as stated on CORE's protest flyer "End Racial Discrimination along U.S. 40 between the Delaware Memorial Bridge and Baltimore."
However, some institutions refused to comply and CORE printed up flyers for anyone who was interested. The call on those flyers was to "Help us finish the job!" and the aim was to orchestrate a number of sit-ins in the segregated establishments. On the flyers, the demonstrators outlined a step-by-step process of what would happen to the volunteers. They would be verbally abused and under the constant threat of violence. Some were arrested, but the focal point (as outlined in the flyer) was to "be courteous and stay non-violent throughout, no matter what the provocation."
Every day for the next few months, 300 to 400 students made their way into the remaining segregated establishments and would remain there until they were read the trespass law by the owner in the presence of police, as was required by Maryland law. These sit-ins were so successful that by June 1962, all of establishments along Route 40 were completely desegregated thanks to the Public Accommodations Law passed by the Baltimore City Council.
As for the Double T Diner…
Though I was at the diner only long enough to enjoy a burger and fries, it seemed almost surreal to picture what happened there 55 years ago. Both black and white students, as well as ordinary volunteers and prominent civil rights activists, sat at this very counter silently protesting the treatment of African Americans. I kept turning my head in many directions, looking for any glimpse of the dramatic events of the past. Diners were talking about their plans for the Fourth of July and the score of the previous night's Orioles game, and were unlikely to be thinking about the events of the past. There's no plaque or newspaper article taped to the wall to inform diners about what happened here.
As I left the diner, I kept thinking to myself how, even though we tend to think of the civil rights movement as a few seminal events, the reality was it took place all over the country, where thousands of people risked their lives every day for a more humane nation. We can still think about the history surrounding a location even as we enjoy a cheeseburger.
Alex Kamins completed a programming internship working with the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives. He is a graduate student at New York University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and is set to graduate next May.