The Day the AFRO Used Wild Comedy to Fight Bias

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This article appeared in the Oct. 14, 1978 AFRO.African Yes American No

The history of journalism is filled with any number of incidents where instead of waiting for news to happen, a newspaper went out and made it happen, thus changing the course of events.

That’s what the Baltimore AFRO AMERICAN did during the turbulent 60’s when in a burst of inspired lunacy it concocted and executed what in time came to be known as “The Great Route 40 Hoax,” producing a large number of red faces among Maryland’s
bumper crop of racists and hilarity throughout the rest of the country, even into the White House itself.

In the summer of 1961, Maryland was having its share of racial problems, a spillover from the Civil Rights Movement that was sweeping the south.

The majority of these problems were concentrated along the Maryland stretch of Route 40 that began at the Delaware-Maryland state line and ran to the outskirts of Baltimore where it turned west and continued cross country to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Segregation was nothing new in the almost continuous strip of restaurants, diners, pizza parlors, hot dog stands and motels that made this particular section of Route 40 almost one single massive and garish neon light from end to end.It had existed quietly for more years than anyone could remember, but then came a flood of African diplomats from newly independent nations and the racism along Route 40 was forced out of the closet into public view.

Quickly, the denial of service to the diplomats mushroomed into a matter of serious international proportions bringing the Federal
government into the picture and raising the wrath of the restaurant owners who railed at what they viewed as the intrusion of outside forces into their personal business.

Traveling between their embassies in Washington and their missions to the United Nations in New York, the Black diplomats had
to use Route 40 as the most direct link between the two cities.

While they rarely stopped on the northern bound leg of the trip; fatigued and hungry after spending several hours returning to Washington on the depressingly dull New Jersey Turnpike, the bright lights of Route 40 beckoned them to stop, eat and rest – and that’s when they collided with the racial traditions of the “Free State” of Maryland.

After a number of them had been insulted and refused service, the State Department, which in pre-Kennedy years had not been overly concerned with the treatment meted out to dark-skinned foreign diplomats, became alarmed at the damage such incidents were doing to the nation’s relationships with African countries.

In moments of candor, officials at the State Department wished privately that Route 40 would just dry up and blow away, but it wouldn’t and as one department official woefully conceded: “Those damn limousines (of the diplomats) always seem to run out of gas just as soon as they get to Maryland.”

This was the kind of state Ambassador Adam Malick Sow of Chad, who had just represented his country at the UN and was on his way to present his credentials to President Kennedy, found when he stopped on June 26th at the Bonnie Brae Diner near Edgewood, Md., to fill up his car and get a cup of coffee. He never got the coffee and later, when the diner’s owner, Mrs. Leroy Merritt, explained why, she probably voiced the sentiments of most of her fellow restaurateurs: “He looked like just an ordinary run-of-the-mill n—-r to me.

I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.” The seething Ambassador was a shade more circumspect in his choice of words to describe the incident.

“When I asked for coffee, the good woman said she could not serve me. She said, ‘that’s the way it is here. I cannot say how I felt.
I was astonished. I was so angry. President Kennedy has made deep apologies, but these humiliations are bad.”

In rapid succession, similar incidents occurred along Route 40 involving diplomats from Niger, Cameroon and Togo, and the
government’s face grew progressively redder as each incident provided fresh ammunition for the anti American propaganda mills
of the world.

Stung by this latest series of incidents and faced with the obvious fact that Maryland was not prepared to take any action on its
own, the Kennedy forces dropped the soft approach and announced that beginning on Labor Day, 1961, a special Federal task force would be sent to Route 40 to see what could be done about persuading the restaurants to change their policies toward African diplomats.

But in the city room of the Baltimore AFRO, the announcement was greeted with a healthy amount of cynicism. It was clear that
the Federal forces were not being deployed because of any strong concern about Black Americans; those forces were going out on
Route 40 to persuade the restaurant owners to serve Black foreigners, end an embarrassing situation for the State Department, and thus help America’s foreign policy.

Despite the talk of a brave and marvelous New Frontier coming out of Washington and the skillful use of symbolic gestures to indicate sympathy with the spreading Civil Rights Movement – such as expressing concern over the well-being of Rev. Martin Luther King – it was evident that the Kennedy Administration possibly because of its razor-thin margin of victory in 1960 – was not ready to deal head on with the explosive domestic race issue.

While sympathizing with the plight of the Africans, the reporters on the AFRO, several of whom had covered civil rights  demonstrations all across the country and risked their lives in the process, felt there was something morally lacking in the government’s efforts to end discrimination along Route 40 if those efforts did not extend to its own Black citizens.

I was managing editor of the Baltimore AFRO at the time and I remember the conversations that went on in the city room in a
dingy ill-lighted bar across the street in Smith’s Hotel – now gone the way of all flesh – where we used to gather to share some booze and our thoughts.

We were frustrated at always being the recorders of action and never the actors.

Somehow out of the talk, out of the venting of ideas, came the irresistible urge to poke fun at the stupid silliness of discrimination by showing to the world that it was not so much the color of a Black’s skin that many White folks objected to so much; it was where the Black came from.

I’ve never been quite sure of where the original idea came from, but come it did, and by the time the AFRO got through with it, a bit
of history had been written.

The idea was simple. Dress up several AFRO reporters in the proper diplomatic attire, equip them with phony accents, and you
could bet your next pay check that the White restaurant owners along Route 40 would not be able to tell them from the real article.
The late Dr. Carl Murphy was publisher of the AFRO then and he was blessed with such a keen and analytical mind, that when you
took him an idea it had better be a good one, or he would wither you with a look. This idea he liked and he gave the full speed
ahead signal with one proviso: “You can’t have diplomats riding around in those cars you young fellows drive, so get yourself a limousine.”

Picked for the leading role in the play that was about to unfold was George W. Collins, who was later to become a familiar face as a
Baltimore TV newscaster. The centerpiece in the masquerade was another volunteer reporter, Herbert Magrum, short, rotund, with the heavy sounds of the open spaces of Texas still twanging in his speech.

Magrum was to posed as Orfa (That’s AFRO spelled backwards) Adwuba (which meant absolutely nothing), the Minister of Finance from the non-existent nation of Gabon, located for no particular reason, except that we couldn’t come up with a better location,
on the East Coast of Africa.

Filling out the trio was another AFRO reporter, Rufus Well, a courtly Virginia. Dressed alike in striped pants, swallow tail coats and top hats – the epitome of sartorially correct diplomats – Collins was assigned the principal role of Loua Akulu, the interpreter,
and Wells that of Dulah Okoro, the aide decamp.

Collins was to speak heavily accented English and do all the talking. His companions, if they had to speak at all, were to use some
form of gibberish that hopefully would pass for an African tongue.

On the morning of Aug. 22, a miserable sweltering day, they began their journey.

Underneath the robe and other clothes they were sweating and nervous, and for good reason.

Accompanying the reporters was AFRO staff photographer I. Henry Phillips, there to record on film as much of the activities as he
could.

Since the southbound side of Route 40 was where all the trouble had taken place, the group first rode up the four lane highway and then doubled back, in the vicinity of Rising Sun, toward Baltimore.

The initial stop was the Madison House where Blacks had been ejected on several prior occasions when they sought service.
As the car drew to a smooth halt, the hoax almost ended before it got started when, in an effort to make a regal exit, the diplomats got tangled up in the rove, attaché cases, legs and arms for several long minutes before they could sort themselves out.

All the while the chauffeur, who was holding the door, desperately tried to keep a straight face while saying to himself – “Those White folks are in there probably saying ‘look at them crazy n—-rs out there playing like they’re Africans.’”

However, when the group finally reached the front door, the waitress surprised them by saying ever so polite: “Good morning, how many are in your party,” with her eyes fixed in fascination on Mangrum’s mangy robe.

Collins held up three fingers – as if he had been doing this kind of thing all his life – and they were escorted to a table in the main dining room. By pointing to the menu, Collins indicated they would have the day’s special – veal cutlets, mashed potatoes and green peas.

Several of the White customers swirled their heads to look in amazement, but no one said anything.

When Collins and the others had finished and were about to pay their bill, the hostess stunned them by asking for Mangrum’s autograph. Unable to write in any African language, Mangrum, in panic, scribbled on the back of the check: “On behalf of my staff and myself, thanks for a wonderful lunch.”

And then with a flourish of supreme self-confidence, he added his name: “Orfa Adwaba, Minister of Finance, Gabon.”

The hostess was still looking at the check as the three left, probably wondering how the minister, whom she had been told spoke no English, could write it so well. Score one.

The Redwood Inn was next and here the greeting was a shade less cordial as the sullen manager demanded: “Who are you and where are you from.”

Putting on a look of annoyance at such impertinence, Collins explained in his barely understandable English that the group was on its way to Washington for high level talks with the State Department on financial aid to help Gabon develop its principal crop – the betel nut.

The introduction to the betel nut into the conversation seemed to remove whatever doubts the manager had been harboring and he ushered the three into a side dining room where they had pie and coffee, much to the amusement of the restaurant’s Black workers who with smiles creasing their faces looked into the room from time to time, probably well aware that the trio was putting
something over on their boss. Score two.

The third stop was the Double T Diner near Baltimore where just the night before, several Black students had been thrown in jail for
attempting to eat there. The manager physically barred the door and told the reporters they could be served there but only if they presented their credentials.

“Credentials?” asked Collins, expressing both innocence and amazement. “What is this credentials?”

“It’s a state law,” replied the manager.

“Law?” echoed Collins.

“You see over here (in America) we have what you call private enterprise. Private enterprise is our business, our domain, and we can do anything we feel is good for the business.” The manager lectured the trio in the ways of American capitalism.

“Like not serving us,” thought Collins as he and his two companions turned away and started back toward the waiting car.
Failure one.

The Route 40 story appeared in newspapers all across the country and overseas, and a lot of people had a good laugh.

In New York City, the now defunct Herald Tribune described the hoax as “an element of wild comedy” and reported that “wrath and hoax is still monumental on Route 40.”

The AFRO was not published until several days after the hoax, but when it hit the streets it had all the details along with pictures and a headline that asked: “When is an African Not an African?”

The restaurant owners were blazing mad about being made fools of, but over in Washington, Angier Biddle Duke, the head of the State Department’s Protocol Division, which had to deal with the Route 40 incidents, called the hoax “a ridiculous system.”

For days after the hoax, the phones were kept busy with callers who wanted to congratulate the reporters and those who wanted to
meet them in a dark alley.

Despite the adverse publicity and the federal pressures, the restaurant owners remained adamant. A few agreed to serve Africans, but the vast majority continued to keep their doors closed.

The uneasy situation might have dragged on for months, but CORE, then at the peak of its power and influence announced that it planned to send some 1,500 Freedom Riders down Route 40 on Nov. 11 – Veteran’s Day. Leading the riders would be the late Julius Hobson, then Eastern Regional Director of CORE, who had the reputation of delivering on everything that he promised.

Behind the scenes frantic negotiations went on between the State Department, the Maryland Commission on Interracial Problems and Relations, a toothless body without any power – and the restaurant owners.

At the 11th hour, actually a day before the scheduled ride, the restaurants capitulated and announced that most of them were
now willing to serve anyone. Up in New York Hobson and James Farmer, then national director of CORE, held a press conference
to announce that the ride had been called off and to warn that:

“We offer the remaining restaurants until Dec. 15 (the Bill of Rights Day) to desegregate. If not, we shall feel free to take necessary
action.”

The delayed ride actually took place on Dec. 16 and involved some 500 individuals and 100 cars – the largest Freedom Ride ever held outside the south.

In most instances, the racially mixed riders were served, though not too gracefully in some of the establishments. Eight were arrested in places that were still holdouts but Farmer pronounced the ride a success and the riders departed forever.

The years since then have not been kind to the highway. Late in 1963, a new turnpike was opened between Baltimore and the
Delaware Memorial Bridge, making it unnecessary for motorists and truckers to use the old route and the flood of traffic that once clogged Route 40 dried up to a slow trickle.

In time, the reporters who figured in the AFRO hoax moved on to other things. Collins is at Baltimore’s WMAR-TV; Mangrum is a public information officer with the Food and Nutrition Service in Washington, D.C. and Wells holds a similar position with the Department of Agriculture in the same city.

Myself?

I’m in New York City as director of communications for the National Urban League. None of us has ever forgotten that August day or the AFRO.

A few weeks ago at our favorite meeting spot, the Sphinx Club, I asked Collins, who was sipping his usual brandy – a little milk and no ice – if he ever thought about the hoax.

“Sure I do,” he answered. “We proved something out there that day and I believe we helped make Baltimore and Maryland better places. And that, ‘Ole Buddy, is what this business is all about.”

Read about their encounter at Miller’s restaurant on afro.com