One weekend (late October or early November, 1961), things got a bit dicey.
I left my dorm early that morning, signing out for College Park, but not listing the church's address. For whatever reason, I didn’t tell anyone -- even my roommate, who didn't approve of my CORE activities -- where I was going or what I was doing.
As instructed, I wore my Sunday dress, little black heels and all-purpose trench coat. My hair was done up in a neat French twist..
CORE sent out a bus, plus a few cars, each carrying two or three protesters, plus driver. One car contained only CORE reps, so they could act as witnesses to whatever happened, I figured. They would not be posting bail for us if we got arrested, however. They made that perfectly clear.
Usually, we went to places like the Little Tavern, Hot Shoppes or family diners. Frankly, I never wanted to eat at the College Park Little Tavern in the first place, but it was important to integrate any business that was part of a national chain.
On this particular Saturday, there was a young, loud, sloppily dressed white guy at the church who clearly was itching to spend some time in jail, as he boasted he had done numerous times in earlier Freedom Rides down south. He even brought along his guitar, just in case. In spite of his enthusiasm and experience, he looked like bad news to me.
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Our next stop was a totally different story. It was much farther north on the east side of Route 1 (Beltsville?), at a diner with front and side parking lots. Since it was early afternoon, both lots were quite full.
When six or seven of us started in the front door, the owner figured out the game plan immediately, and almost blew a gasket. He yelled that the place was closed, so we left, no questions asked.
In what seemed like only a few minutes, the diner emptied out and the owner hung a “Closed” sign on the front door. He also called the police. At first, I was glad, but then I remembered that this WAS Prince Georges County, probably the northern-most county of the south.
Meanwhile, we set up a marching path in the parking lot. Always careful to keep moving, stay six feet from the entrance to the building and out of the way of customers, we quietly walked back and forth, carrying signs, in hopes customers and passersby would support our effort.
By this time, those heels really started to hurt my feet. It was all I could do to walk, let alone do it in a straight line carrying a heavy sign. I didn’t dare get too close to the building or I could be arrested for trespassing. If we stopped marching, we could be charged with loitering or trespassing, since the business was officially closed. So, I trudged on, reminding myself that this was a good thing to do.
The PG cop arrived, parked, got out and leaned back against his cruiser. He stood there for the remainder of our stay, his arms crossed, apparently waiting for one of us to trip.
It got chilly and started to rain. Pretty soon it was pouring. Then, the owner flew out of the front door, all red in the face. For whatever reason, he singled me out, glaring at me as he hurried around the building to a shiny red Corvette parked in the side lot.
Suddenly, he backed out of the parking space, stopped, leaned out of the driver-side window and shouted “You four-eyed, nigger-loving white bitch!” while he gunned his engine, aiming his car right at me.
I froze. Should I move to the right and risk getting within six feet of the building? Or move to the left and get in the path of his car? I chose the right. Hell with it. If I get arrested, I get arrested. At least I'd be alive.
I didn’t trust the cop to save me, and it was a good thing. He never lifted a finger.
When I was within inches of the roaring Corvette, the owner swerved and peeled out of the parking lot, racing north toward Baltimore in a blue cloud.
It was clearly time to leave, but Mr. Jailbird refused. He grabbed his guitar from the car, and shouted an obscenity at the cop. Sure enough, he got his free night in the PG County jail. Good riddance!
The last mile and a half back to my dorm was equally unnerving. As I crossed Route 1 alone, a southbound sedan full of young white men – maybe in their 20s – started tailing me. Once I turned onto campus, they drove alongside, hooting and hollering, calling me names all the way back to my dorm. My feet were killing me, but I never gave them reason to think I heard anything they said.
Read Walking Down Freedom Road, Part 1 for more on this story.