Tucked inside the files at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston are State Department notes from the 1960s detailing racial discrimination along U.S. 40 in Maryland — and warning the president of its implications for the Cold War.
One account describes the experience of an African diplomat who couldn't find a restaurant to serve a glass of water for his son as the boy struggled to catch his breath during an asthma attack.
Another tells of a diplomat who drove 10 bleary-eyed hours along the highway — then the main thoroughfare between New York and Washington — because motels in Maryland wouldn't rent him a room for the night.
Segregation meant African nations were getting a bad impression of the United States. And it came at a time when the Kennedy administration was courting those nations as they gained their independence, hoping they would choose Washington over the communists. Suddenly, U.S. 40 was the epicenter of a diplomatic problem.
"Maryland is a Southern state, and this was Confederate territory," recalled the Rev. Douglas B. Sands, now 80, who took part in protests of restaurants and motels along the highway. The African-American pastor from Howard County says he was mindful even at the time that the demonstrations for civil rights had international significance.
As negative encounters involving diplomats accumulated, Kennedy sent a telegram on Sept. 25, 1961, to 200 Maryland civic leaders.
Kennedy's call was clear. He wanted "voluntary cooperation for an immediate end to segregation in restaurants and other places of public service" on U.S. 40 in Maryland.
Jennifer Erdman, an adjunct history professor at Stevenson University, was struck by what she read as she dug through documents at the Kennedy Library.
The president was thinking, "We have to serve these diplomats. We have to make a good impression, and if we don't, they are going to turn to the Russians, and we are going to lose this Cold War," Erdman said.
ln mid-December, less than three months after Kennedy issued his plea, as many as 700 blacks and whites descended upon dozens of still-segregated restaurants along the highway. Fourteen were arrested in the Freedom Ride, including several who were detained for trespassing at the Double T Diner in Catonsville.
One of them was Constantine Sedares.
The owners "made ... disparaging remarks. They certainly weren't complimentary," Sedares, 83, said recently when contacted by a reporter at an assisted-living center outside Newark, N.J.
"They were concerned that whites would do anything to help blacks. It's hard to describe it."
Sedares, the son of Greek immigrants, said he hasn't thought very often about the "few" nights he spent in jail at the now-closed Fullerton police station. He worked as a labor organizer for a number of years and felt compelled to try to change society.
He had traveled to Maryland from his home in New Jersey with a group of activists from the Congress of Racial Equality — which helped to plan the Freedom Rides — for the demonstration.
"I feel satisfied that I did my part," he said. "We didn't think it was anything particularly exciting. It was a day's work is what it amounted to."
A contemporary account in The Baltimore Sun offered few details, but described the incident as peaceful.
Sedares, along with three other men and a woman, never got inside the Double T, but stood on the top steps of the door and listened to the restaurant's founder read the Trespass Act, according to the article. When they refused to leave, the founder "swore out warrants for their arrests." Each spent at least the night in jail.
Current diner owner John Korologos said a lot has changed.
"We're all human beings. Years back, [the diner] had good and bad days, but we've tried to make them all good days," he said in a heavy Greek accent. Korologos, who moved to the U.S. in 1974, bought the restaurant with his brothers, Tom and Louie, in 1987.
The Catonsville diner also has changed physically since the 1960s. Korologos said he and his brothers doubled the size of the restaurant by expanding the kitchen and adding dining rooms.
Sarah Brown, 73, and her longtime friend Lanie Gathers, 65, sat down for lunch there on a recent day, as they have for decades. But the Gwynn Oak women, both black, said they remember a time as girls that they couldn't eat there.
They said the former owners missed an opportunity to draw business from the black community. "Whoever sold the restaurant did a great thing — now they've lost out!" Brown said, laughing over her tuna sandwich, coleslaw and chicken noodle soup.
The Double T is one of the few restaurants and motels operating in the 1960s along U.S. 40 that are still in business. State historians say there's nothing along the highway to mark the important turn of events from the civil rights era.
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.