In 1957, Ghana’s first Minister of Finance, Komla Gbedemah, had a bad experience when he walked into a restaurant in the United States of America to buy orange juice.
The events of the evening on October 10, 1957, became so significant that then-President Dwight Eisenhower found it necessary to apologize. During an era when the world was transitioning away from racial segregation, Komla Gbedemah and his secretary, upon receiving their juice, were informed by the waitress that they couldn’t sit inside the restaurant due to the policy against “colored people.” The news quickly spread to the press, leading President Eisenhower to offer an apology and extend an invitation for breakfast at the White House. This incident, one among several where African diplomats encountered racial segregation in the U.S., created discomfort among U.S. officials, especially as Washington and Moscow were vying for African influence during the Cold War, as reported by face2faceafrica.com.
“I believe the United States as a government, if it is going to be true to its founding documents, does have the job of working hard toward that time when there is no discrimination made on such [an] inconsequential reason as race, color, or religion,” a shamefaced President Eisenhower said following his meeting with Gbedemah.
Gbedemah and his secretary had thought they could sit inside the Delaware restaurant that fateful evening and have their drink but they were barred because of their skin color. Gbedemah even showed the waitress an identity card introducing himself as the finance minister of Ghana, but the waitress would not budge.
The manager was called to the scene, but he threw his weight behind the waitress, saying those were the rules. Gbedemah reportedly told the manager: “The [white] people here are of a lower social status than I am, but they can drink here, and we can’t. You can keep the orange juice and the change [from a dollar bill], but this is not the last you have heard of this.”
Gbedemah, who had entertained Vice President Richard Nixon during his tour of Africa that spring, added: “If the vice president of the U.S. can have a meal in my house when he is in Ghana then I cannot understand why I must receive this treatment at a roadside restaurant in America.”
When word of the incident spread through the diplomatic community, the State Department immediately issued an official apology while Wilson Flake, the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, described the episode as “an exceptional and isolated incident”, knowing that a complaint from the government of Ghana to Washington was imminent.
Then came the White House breakfast where President Eisenhower, who had just desegregated schools in Little Rock, “broke bread with Gbedemah, gave him a tour of the White House, discussed the financing of an important dam project, and by his quiet action, made it clear it was high time for the nation to move past such pettiness,” a media report said.
But “such pettiness” continued. In 1960 when about seventeen African nations gained their independence, they began sending their diplomats to Washington, D.C. As it was reported at the time, many of these diplomats suffered the humiliation of segregation while in the United States, from housing discrimination to being barred from entering segregated eateries and other public places.
What these African dignitaries and diplomats went through brought to light the fact that while the U.S. was preaching democracy throughout the Cold War, the civil rights of people of color in its field were being relegated to the background.
The tarnishing impact of racist incidents compelled the U.S. to eventually endorse civil rights legislation. Specifically, these diplomatic racist incidents persisted until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, recent protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s death have sparked a broader conversation about the enduring issues of racial and social injustice in America.
Indeed, the humiliating abuse of African diplomats in the 1950s and 1960s did bring attention to the troubling pattern of harassment and discrimination against Black people. And in the case of Gbedemah, two things came out of his White House breakfast meeting — the U.S. agreed to finance Ghana’s plan to build the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River and the Howard Johnson restaurant “changed its policy to serve whoever walked in the door.”
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