The Freedom Riders started incursions into the sharply segregated deep south to confront Jim Crow laws in 1961. For the campaign young people boarded buses heading into states where they tested a Supreme Court ruling that declared that separate facilities for interstate travel were unconstitutional. But this era of protest also involved visits to northeastern Maryland as hospital, restaurants, bars, theaters, motels, and other public places were segregated.
Cecil’s central location on the main route between Washington, D.C., and New York put it on the forefront of this protest movement. Along Route 40 and Route 1 restaurants and gas stations also denied service to African diplomats and subjected them to the same Jim Crow humiliations as African-Americans.
At the height of the Cold War, this worried the Kennedy administration as it undercut efforts of the “Free World” to win friends in emerging nations. Since an all out effort was required to assure friendly and dignified reception for diplomats so the nation’s foreign policy wouldn’t be damaged, the White House created a special protocol section in the State Department. Detailed to smooth out domestic public policy wrinkles the Soviet bloc leveraged to its advantage, the agency pressured roadside restaurants and gas stations to serve African diplomats.
From his summer White House in Hyannis Port, Mass President Kennedy made a personal appeal to end discrimination, the Baltimore Sun reported. “In a telegram to a luncheon meeting of Harford and Cecil County community leaders, the president called for voluntary cooperation for an immediate end to segregation.” Other federal officials appealed for support from some 200 prominent citizens of the two counties in stamping out incidents of racial discrimination, particularly against African diplomats.
After many places cooperated by serving diplomats an enterprising reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American caused a stir. Posing as a diplomat, he dressed in traditional African-garb while stopping at businesses along the highway. In disguise he was warmly greeted and photographed, but when the journalist returned as an everyday person service was refused. Many felt this was unjust since some citizens of the United States were denied equal treatment.
All of this sparked the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to piggyback on the federal desegregation efforts in Maryland. When attempts to change things stalled in the legislature, CORE launched a Route 40 campaign. Four African-Americans were jailed after refusing to leave the Bar H Chuck House in North East in Sept. 1961. After being booked in at the Cecil County Jail, the “sit-downers” staged a hunger strike. About 7 days later, the protestors were sent to Crownsville State Hospital for a mental evaluation, but returned to the local jail the next day. A week or so later, they paid a small fine and were quietly released.
Months later in November 1961, the promise of a massive Freedom Ride along the corridor prompted about half the restaurants (35) on the dual highway to begin serving everyone and CORE called off the ride.
But they promised to check on thing soon. In December 1961 some 700 freedom riders rolled up and down the road in northeastern Maryland demonstrating at 40 segregated restaurants. The only violence of the day occurred when one newspaper editor punched his rival for photographing him arguing with a protestor,” the Baltimore Sun reported. “Riders, restaurants owners and police got along with one another much better than that generally.” The ride had been ordered to fulfil a pledge to hit every segregated restaurant on Route 40 between Baltimore and Delaware. Two arrests were made at one restaurant in
North East and another place in that town tried to avoid the protestors by charging $4 an hour for parking.
Keeping the pressure on the governor and the legislature to continue moving forward, the Freedom Riders returned a few more times. In 1962 five protestors were arrested for trespassing at Rose’s Dinner in Elkton.
In March 1963, Governor Tawes signed into law a public accommodation law, making Maryland the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to ban discrimination in restaurants and hotels. The law became effective after the 1964 election.
In Conowingo, two African students from the Union of South Africa were arrested for trespassing at a Tavern on U.S. 1. While public accommodation laws had been passed, the Cecil County Sheriff said the place was a tavern and thus it didn’t fall under State or Federal public accommodation laws. Eventually the charges were quietly dropped, once the State Department got involved. A few months later the Sheriff received a call to the same place and arrested three African-Americans from Lincoln University. “Sheriff Startt said he didn’t know what was in the federal Civil Right Act. I work under State Law and I only know the state law,” the Baltimore Sun wrote.
While some incidents occurred after the law became effective in 1964 discrimination was no longer legally tolerated in Maryland restaurants and motels.