Blacks Banned at 1964 Dinner
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

James Barker and Margaret Smith / Portsmouth Athenaeum Collection

BLACK HISTORY

We have our first African American president at last. But let us not forget how recently the struggle for equality was fought – even here in "Yankee" New Hampshire. In 1964 a black couple could not even dine at the exclusive Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. 

 

 


Wentworth Hotel integrated in NAACP "sting" operation

America evolves. The back-to-back celebration of Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of President Barack Obama prove that change is possible. These are milestones in the ceaseless struggle against racial discrimination. But there are important footnotes too. As recently as 1964 the battle for civil rights was being waged right here on the NH seacoast.

Three years before Sidney Poitier took on Spencer Tracey in the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, two Seacoast men faced off in the dining room of the exclusive Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle. Hotel owner James Barker Smith denied Emerson Reed and his wife Jane the right to dine in a public restaurant. The Reeds were black – and on July 4, 1964 they fought back.

The Wentworth was festooned with flags in celebration of Independence Day when the Reeds, an African-American couple, arrived for dinner. They were the guests of a white couple, Jean and Hugh Potter. Smith refused to seat the Reeds in the dining room. He then insisted that the two men join him in his office. Jean Porter remained in the dining room to hold the table and Jane Reed was asked to stay in the hotel lobby.

Hugh Potter, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, explained to Smith that they had made reservations for four and paid for their dinners in advance.

"You didn't tell me the other couple was black!" Smith exclaimed.

"No," Potter replied. "Nor did I tell you that I'm Scotch-Irish."

Smith was not amused, Jean Potter later remembered in a letter to this writer.

"He asked why my husband didn't go back to Africa with all the others," Potter recalls.

The biracial party of four insisted on being seated together in the dining room. Smith offered to let the Reeds eat in the kitchen. After a two-hour argument over the ethics and illegality of segregation, Smith held his ground. But when Potter produced the receipt for the four meals and proved that barring the Reeds was both unethical and illegal, the two couples were allowed to dine together -- and the Wentworth was officially integrated.

In fact, the operation had been carefully designed by local members of the NAACP to test the enforcement of new civil rights legislation enacted earlier that year under President Lyndon Johnson. An "exclusive" hotel from its earliest days, the Wentworth was then on the list of businesses known to openly discriminate against blacks in the Portsmouth region.

Smith had previously been involved in a civil rights scuffle with movie producer Louis de Rochemont during the filming of Lost Boundaries in 1948. Smith then owned the Rockingham Hotel in downtown Portsmouth, and refused to seat African American actors. When de Rochemont threatened to withdraw his entire film crew and cast from the hotel, Smith relented.

In both cases, the owner rationalized his policy in terms of economics, not racism. If he served African-Americans, Smith explained, he would lose his regular customers and that would cost him thousands of dollars. In truth, despite his reputation as a gracious and affable hosts, Smith and his wife Margaret had purchased the Wentworth in 1946 specifically because it was an "exclusive" business serving wealthy "Gentile" clients. It did not, at the time, serve or employ people of color. It also did not serve Jews, Catholics, Greeks or other minorities. Records on file in the Portsmouth Athenaeum show that the previous owner, Harry Beckwith, routinely vetted unfamiliar guests through an agency that checked their ethnic and religious backgrounds. In 1946, when the Smiths were shopping for a hotel in New England, Boston real estate agent Arthur Langdon informed the couple that the Wentworth, one of the last exclusive hotels on the Atlantic coast, had just gone on the market. They purchased it for $200,000 and sold it 34 years later for over $5 million.

In 1964, Smith finally came to understand, that the negative publicity engendered by breaking the new federal laws against racial discrimination, as well as the fines and potential criminal penalties, were not worth the battle. And so on Independence Day 1964, at 9 pm, he reluctantly opened the dining room to the Reeds.

Such discrimination was common in Portsmouth before and after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Some local barbers routinely refused to cut the hair of African Americans, claiming that they did not have the proper tools. Some hotels were perpetually filled to capacity whenever black guests appeared. Even government officials at Pease Air Force Base knowingly offered one list of off-base housing to blacks and a separate list to whites. Racism descended from an age of slavery was widespread throughout "Yankee" New England until very modern times.

Interestingly, among the three couples involved in the Wentworth civil rights "sting", only the Reeds were Portsmouth natives. The Smiths were originally from Colorado and had previously operated a hotel in Texas. The Potters had recently moved to New Castle from the Midwest. Emerson Reed, by contrast, had attended Portsmouth High School. Like Jim Smith, Reed had served in the military in World War II. He later became a foreman at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. One of his ancestors was among a little known group of black patriots who fought in the American Revolution.

In there own way, the Reeds and the Potters and other NAACP members fought another American revolution, one that continues to this day. According to historian Valerie Cunningham, Emerson Reed grew angrier as Jim Smith refused to seat the couple for two hours because of their race. Smith insisted, according to Reed, that he would seat a black in his dining room only over his dead body. Smith said he had worked with blacks in the military, Reed recalls in Cunningham’s book Black Portsmouth and he did not like them. Remembering how his own father had been discriminated against while living in Portsmouth, Reed finally snapped.

"I'll bring so many blacks back here," he recalled telling the hotel owner as tempers flared, "that you'll wish you had of let us in."

Forty years later, in July 2004, locals celebrated that historic event. It was Jim Smith's worst nightmare as dozens of African Americans crowded into the dining room at Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle. Abandoned and in ruins for 20 years, the historic 1874 hotel had just reopened after a $26 million renovation.

For the first time in history, blacks outnumbered whites in the once-exclusive summer resort. Every seat was taken. There were speeches, toasts and fine food. After dinner waiters rolled out an enormous chocolate cake. An inscription on the top commemorated the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act 40 years earlier. It was a grand event. Yet no one in attendance in 2004 dared to dream that in just five years, America would welcome its first African-American president.

 

© 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.