Discrimination against a Sierra Leonean diplomat based solely on the color of his skin at a restaurant on a Maryland highway rest
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.