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.
- VIDEO: Postcards from U.S. 40: Freedom Ride
- Recalling the Freedom Riders at Double T Diner in Catonsville [Pictures]
- Congress of Racial Equality U.S. 40 Flyer [PDF]
- Scenes from U.S. 40 through the years
- 100 Maryland places, attractions and landmarks
- Minority Groups
- Laws and Legislation
- Dining and Drinking
See more topics »
6300 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, MD 21228, USA
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.