Discrimination against a Sierra Leonean diplomat solely based on the color of his skin at a restaurant on a Maryland highway rest stop in 1961 was a major milestone in the events which eventually led to desegregation in the USA. The unpleasant incident, neglected by US Civil Rights chroniclers, was the diplomatic equivalent of Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on the bus to a white person in Montgomery, AL in 1955.
In early March, 1961, William H. Fitzjohn, a Columbia PhD and charge d’affaires of Sierra Leone was traveling along Route 40, the main highway then connecting Washington, DC to New York. But when Fitzjohn and his African-American driver peeled off in Hagerstown, Maryland for some food and rest at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, they were denied service because of their skin color. Occurring in the heat of the Cold War, it was an important turning point in the fight for desegregation in the USA.
The United States was greatly embarrassed when the media of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ran with the story as an example of racism in the United States. A shocked President John F. Kennedy invited Fitzjohn to the White House to deliver a personal apology, ironically on April 27, 1961, Sierra Leone’s Independence Day. Winslow F. Burhans, mayor of Hagerstown, invited the diplomat from Sierra Leone to lunch with a group of important town citizens. And Howard Johnson’s issued an apology. Route 40 had become the meeting point between the Cold War and the US Civil Rights Movement.
Engaged in a confrontation with the USSR over the Congo Crisis, the Kennedy administration could not afford to lose the backing of emerging African countries at the UN. But up and down the Route 40 corridor and the Washington suburbs, African diplomats were daily being subjected to racism in public accommodations.
When Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a Southerner, joined the fight to protect African diplomats from racism to protect America’s image and interests abroad, the Kennedy administration was unintentionally dragged into the struggle to end segregation in American society.
Small steps like the Department of State working out deals with restaurateurs and realtors to shield African diplomats from discrimination were complemented by Kennedy administration pressure on local governments, protests by African-Americans and shocking stories of racial discrimination in the press.
Maryland passed a Public Accommodations Law in 1963, and the rest of America was legally desegregated when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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