Two events in Dover more than 50 years ago helped lead to landmark legislation doing away with segregated restaurants, motels and other public accommodations.
Although 1954’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education cleared the way for integration of the nation’s schools, it took much longer, particularly in Delaware, for the same progress to be made in other venues such as hotels, motels and restaurants.
House Bill 466, introduced during the 122nd General Assembly session and approved in December 1963, finally made it illegal to discriminate against anyone because of their “race, creed, color or national origin” in any establishment catering to the general public.
Although racial segregation at restaurants and lunch counters was pretty much the norm, particularly in southern Delaware, two incidents in Dover, one that almost had international repercussions, helped pave the way for that landmark bill.
A presidential apology
On Oct. 7, 1957, Komla Agbedi Gbedemah, finance minister of the newly independent West African nation of Ghana and a small entourage made a stop at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Dover. Gbedemah and an aide ordered two orange juices, but were shocked when the waitress said they could not drink the beverage inside, according to contemporary news reports obtained from the Delaware Public Archives.
“She told me colored people were not allowed to eat in the restaurant,” Gbedemah told reporters. “I paid 60 cents for the orange juice, left it there, and went away.
“I intend to demand an apology from the Howard Johnson chain,” he was quoted as saying in the Delaware State News.
With the nation still smarting from the sight of U.S. Army troops guarding nine black students against epithet-spouting segregationists at Little Rock High School in Arkansas, a race-related international incident was the last thing President Dwight Eisenhower wanted. The situation was made even more pressing by the Soviet Union’s attempts to make economic and political inroads in emerging African nations by pointing out such examples of racism as business as usual in America.
Dover Howard Johnson franchise owner Howard Cook told reporters that year the slight was the result of “an unwritten community custom,” but added he would have served the men had he been there.
And Gbedemah got his apology from a much higher authority when Eisenhower invited him to a White House breakfast three days later.
Photographed with Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon at the Executive Mansion, Gbedemah later said, “The president expressed personal apologies for all that was done in Delaware.” He also got a telephoned apology from Cook before leaving for Ghana, and said he considered the incident closed.
Writing to Gbedemah 18 months later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he regretted the finance minister had “faced such a humiliating experience in our country,” but said Eisenhower’s hastily arranged breakfast meeting showed America was becoming “more sensitive to the rolling tide of world opinion than ever before.”
Quiet protest, then arrest
Although this episode was quickly overshadowed by other world events, another incident in Dover a little more than four years later reminded Delawareans of the area’s “unwritten community custom.”
The unnamed waitress at the Hollywood Diner would have had no idea what events were unfolding the afternoon of Feb. 10, 1962, as she saw two cars pull into the parking lot of the diner, which still stands today on U.S. Route 13, then known as the Dover bypass. Inside were seven students, three white and four black, from the University of Delaware and Delaware State College (now University).
According to the court transcripts on file at the Delaware Public Archives, the seven divided up into two groups, sat quietly at two booths, and waited for the waitress to take their order.
That didn’t happen, but that’s exactly what the students, who called themselves the Student Committee Against Discrimination, expected.
Saying the restaurant did not serve “coloreds,” the transcripts show the waitress and then the co-owner, Ruth Rosen, asked the group to leave. When they insisted on ordering a meal, Rosen called Delaware State Police; the senior trooper on the scene, Lt. James T. Vaughn, told the group they were violating Delaware’s Innkeeper Law, which allowed businesses to refuse service to anyone business patrons found “objectionable.” Again saying they only wanted to be served a meal, the seven were arrested for trespassing.
One of the three white defendants, Elizabeth Pilat, recalls the students were passive, yet firm in their resistance.
“We had decided to test the Delaware Innkeeper’s Law that said it was legal to discriminate if the owner wanted to,” said Pilat, now Betsy Marston of Paonia, Colo. “We wanted to test the law, and to test it was to be arrested and take the consequences, then go to court and argue that federal law would not permit it and that it was outmoded.”
Another white defendant, Duane Nichols, now a retired professor of chemical engineering living in West Virginia, recalled how the students had previously organized a boycott of restaurants around the University of Delaware. The group handed out leaflets naming restaurants that did not discriminate and asking students not patronize ones that did. Most of the segregated restaurants did change their policies, Nichols said, and that’s when the students started looking south.
“You know, the time was coming that people would have to realize it wasn’t reasonable or morally defensible to continue to discriminate based on skin color,” he said.
“We chose the Hollywood Diner because it was in the state capital and we knew a lot of people frequented it,” Nichols said. “It was our objective to bring to the general public an awareness of the problem statewide.”
“We wanted to get a point across and we think this will do it,” the third white defendant, the late James White, told reporters at the time.
The event was witnessed by a small crowd of journalists and photographers, and a group photo of the students was published in the Delaware State News the following Monday.
The seven were taken to the Kent County Correctional Institution, where they were separated by sex − and race. They declined to pay the $100 each bail, but were released a day later when a group of Dover’s black residents put up the cash.
“We thought we’d make a greater impression on the people of this area if we went to jail,” Jesse A. Blackshear, one of the black defendants, told reporters then. Blackshear now is a minister living in Savannah, Ga.
The group, including black defendants Roland E. Livingston, Philip M. Anderson and Linda G. Anderson, went on trial in June of that year, defended by prominent lawyer and civil rights activist Louis L. Redding, who a decade earlier had successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court against racial school separation in Brown vs. Board of Education.
“He was a really powerful man,” Marston recalled, adding that Redding had been looking for a way to test the Innkeeper’s Law, particularly in southern Delaware.
“What got us was that this discrimination against blacks was like a hangover from another time,” she said. “But it was just hanging around. Nobody would test it, nobody would say it was wrong.
“It was stupid.”
Court of Common Pleas Judge William G. Bush III reserved a final decision until November 1963, acquitting the group of the trespassing charge, but leaving the Innkeeper’s Law intact. Instead, the judge ruled it was unconstitutional for a business owner to ask the government to enforce a private policy of racial discrimination.
“If the state acts in this manner, the judicial power should be placed behind and in favor of racial discrimination and such action is forbidden by the 14th Amendment,” Bush wrote.
In the 16 months that passed between the trial and Bush’s decision, the Hollywood Diner had changed its policy and started serving blacks.
Less than a month afterward, the General Assembly approved HB 466, the state’s equal accommodations law, despite considerable struggle and efforts to weaken it. The Dec. 11, 1963, House vote was 21 in favor, with 14 voting against, absent or not voting. On Dec. 17, 1963, the Senate approved the bill, 10-7. Gov. Elbert N. Carvel signed the legislation the next day.
More than 50 years after the events of 1962, both Marston and Nichols are pleased they took part in the quiet protest at the Hollywood Diner. Although it did not garner the national attention of the Gbedemah case, they both feel it served its purpose.
Marston earned a master’s degree in journalism and for 19 years edited the High Country News, a Colorado-based magazine covering issues affecting the American West. She also won an Emmy in 1974 for a documentary on black singer and political activist Paul Robeson.
She feels taking part in the protest only cemented her own convictions about equal opportunity for all.
“It just formed my life in the sense of caring about these issues,” she said. “It woke me up to the issue of equality, freedom and of being against discrimination.”
“I sent my parents in West Virginia a copy of the newspaper with my picture on the front page, showing a policeman with his hand on my arm,” Nichols said. “They didn’t understand how their son could get arrested for something that didn’t directly involve him. There was no doubt in my mind at the time and none since then that it was the right thing to do.”
“This past summer, I was in Dover and went to the Hollywood Diner,” Nichols said. “I enjoyed it. I was pleased to know they’re still in business.”
The Dover Post attempted to reach the Hollywood Diner’s current owners for comments on this historic event, but was unsuccessful.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Much of the reporting for this article referenced historical materials found at the Delaware Public Archives, library archives at Delaware Legislative Hall and various online sources.