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Civil Rights Victory Celebrated

40th Anniversary Civil RightsFIRST BLACKS
July 4, 1964

Some battles are won in near silence on fields without weapons against surprising foes. Forty years ago the Wentworth Hotel was integrated on July 4 by a courageous young couple.





Just forty years ago this week – July 4, 1964 -- Emerson and Jane Reed, an African-American couple, were turned away from a local restaurant simply because they were black. This week, in memory of that event, dozens of African-Americans filled that same restaurant to capacity. There were a few speeches made and a few memories exchanged, but for the most part, they came to Wentworth by the Sea simply to be there, to close the circle, and to feel the importance of the moment.

The reeds did have dinner at the Wentworth that night. The story is told in full in the newly released history book Black Portsmouth by Mark Sammons and Valerie Cunningham. Both Valerie and Mark were in attendance, along with members of the local NAACP and the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. The story also appears in my recent history of Wentworth by the Sea.

wbsbooklink.jpgThe Wentworth was an "exclusive" hotel for most of its first 100 years. Catholics, Jews and blacks and a number of other minorities were barred. Owners James Barker Smith and his wife Margaret knew when they purchased the business in 1946 that it catered to a wealthy "Gentile" clientele. The real estate agent who sold them the property specifically noted that the Wentworth was then one of the last exclusive hotels on the Atlantic Coast. It might have stayed that way except for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned all public accommodations from discriminating against patrons due to race.

Following enactment of the anti-segregation legislation, a number of Civil Rights volunteers, black and white, methodically put the new laws to the test. On Independence Day in 1965 University of New Hampshire professor Hugh Potter and his wife Jean made reservations for four at the Wentworth dining room and paid for the meals in advance. The white couple arrived first and, as expected, when the second couple turned out to be African-American, they were denied access to the public restaurant. The white couple who had made the reservations were called into the owner's office and, according to a hand-written report given to, an extremely uncomfortable conversation followed. All four members of the group were asked to leave numerous times. But when the guests threatened to report the hotel for its violation of the Civil Rights law, the owner relented and diners were served.

The "sting" succeeded and the Wentworth was integrated at last. It was this brave moment of quiet dignity, although almost lost to history, that guests of the Wentworth celebrated. It was an honor to be there.

VISIT: Seacoast Black HIstory

Civil RIghts Celebration

Historian Valerie Cunningham

Toast to 1964 Civil Rights Action

Photos and text by J. Dennis Robinson.
MORE: Wentworth by the Sea History





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