This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders’ incursion into the segregated South in an effort to bring about change. The summer of 1961 saw over 400 individuals, black and white, join an effort to test and challenge the Jim Crow laws that segregated travel facilities throughout the South. While their goal was based on non-violence, that did not stop those who brutally attacked them, often aided by local police; I hope that no one ever underestimates or undervalues the courageous efforts of these selfless young people.
PBS is currently celebrating this anniversary with a website and a documentary celebrating this vital piece of American history. You can watch it online. I watched it last night, and was surprised at how much I didn’t know. It’s an impressive documentary and one that everyone should watch.
While the deep South was the main focus during that first summer of Freedom Rides, other areas of the country were targeted in the summer of 1962. The Maryland Eastern Shore Project brought Freedom Riders to challenge segregated dining facilities as well as efforts to challenge voter suppression in Maryland.
That summer I was working at a small restaurant on Route 301, a well-traveled highway that made a connection between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and points north, such as Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia. We knew from news reports that a group of Freedom Riders was heading to the Eastern Shore and was likely to take a detour from the route to the southern Shore and stop at the Circus Restaurant. We also knew that in some restaurants where Freedom Riders attempted to gain service there had been ugly scenes.
As a rule, at the Circus, blacks had been welcomed at our carry-out window for service, and I often felt guilty about the fact that they had to take their food away from the restaurant, especially on those hot, humid summer days when automobile air conditioning was a luxury few had. We knew that if the Freedom Riders came, they would enter the restaurant. Consequently, Dave Wharton, the owner, called his kitchen and wait staff together to inform us that if they came, we would not refuse service. He asked if anyone had a problem with that, and a couple of the workers, including the cook, objected. He made it clear that she would prepare their food just like any other customers. He asked who among the wait staff would not object to serving them. I volunteered.
Sure enough, they arrived; if I remember correctly, it was a group of six or eight people, both white and black, traveling in a van instead of a bus. There were a number of patrons already in the restaurant who were no doubt unaware of Dave’s plan to serve them. When they came in, most of the guests registered shock and seething anger. I greeted them cordially and pulled two tables together to accommodate their group, and distributed menus. While I went back to get water to take to the table, one of our regulars (a respected businessman from Centreville, MD), expressed his outrage, lacing it with profanity and the n-word. I kept my mouth shut, delivered the water to their table, then poked my head into the kitchen to alert Dave.
He came out and made it plain to the “gentleman” (and to everyone else watching the events unfold) that we were not refusing service. At that, the gentleman, with most ungentlemanly language, again expressed his outrage and threatened to never return to the restaurant again. I think Dave must have responded with something like, “We’ll miss you.” He stormed out of the restaurant, and I never saw him there again for the rest of that summer. To their credit, the other customers remained quiet, even though they were undoubtedly uncomfortable. I returned to the Freedom Riders and took their orders. We served them; they paid their bill, left a reasonable tip, and went on their way. I was very proud of Dave Wharton that day, and I suspect that his little restaurant was remembered kindly by those Freedom Riders who risked their safety and their lives during their fight to integrate restaurants in this country.
I found a very similar account written by Kay Golden of Charlotte, North Carolina. Like Dave, her boss made it clear his restaurant would serve the Freedom Riders, and Ms. Golden was the server who stood up for justice.
There were other ways that the Civil Rights Movement affected me, but this is what I remember most clearly. I am proud to have had even the tiniest impact on bringing about the integration of travel facilities during those difficult times.