In 1957, this United States president was forced to apologize to a former Ghanaian Minister of Finance.
Typically, presidents offer public apologies on the basis that the circumstances that led to them may have been diplomatically or politically incorrect, resulting in conflict.
When Komla Gbedemah, Ghana’s first Finance Minister, went to a restaurant in the United States to buy orange juice in 1957, he had a bad experience.
Dwight Eisenhower, the President of the United States at the time, had to apologize to him because the events of October 10, 1957 would become so significant.
When Komla Gbedemah and his secretary received their juice during a time when the world was still moving away from racial segregation, the waitress informed them that they could not sit inside the restaurant because “colored people are not allowed to eat in here.”
After the news reached the media, President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to offer an apology to Gbedemah and invite him to breakfast at the White House.
According to face2faceafrica.com, the fact that Washington and Moscow were competing for African “hearts and minds” during the Cold War made many U.S. officials feel uneasy about the incident, which was one of many instances in which African diplomats faced racial segregation in the United States.
Following his meeting with Gbedemah, ashamed President Eisenhower stated, “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.”
That fateful evening, Gbedemah and his secretary thought they could sit inside the Delaware restaurant and enjoy a drink, but their skin color prevented them from doing so. Even though Gbedemah presented the waitress with an identity card identifying him as Ghana’s finance minister, the waitress insisted on continuing.
The manager was summoned to the scene, but he backed the waitress and stated that those were the rules. According to reports, Gbedemah told the manager: I am of lower social status than the white people who live here, but they are allowed to drink here while we are not. Although this isn’t the last you’ve heard of it, you can keep the orange juice and the change from a dollar bill.
Gbedemah, who had entertained Vice President Richard Nixon on his spring tour of Africa, added: I have no idea why I have to eat at a roadside restaurant in America when the vice president of the United States can eat at my house when he is in Ghana.
Knowing that the Ghanaian government would soon file a complaint with Washington, Wilson Flake, the United States ambassador to Ghana, described the incident as “an exceptional and isolated incident” as soon as word of it spread through the diplomatic community.
A media report stated that at the White House breakfast, President Eisenhower, who had just desegregated Little Rock schools, “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 beyond such pettiness.”
Be that as it may, “such negligibility” proceeded. 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, when approximately seventeen African nations gained independence in 1960.
The experiences of these African diplomats and dignitaries brought to light the fact that, while the United States preached democracy throughout the Cold War, civil rights for people of color in its field were ignored.
Due to the negative impact that such racist incidents had on the global image of the United States, it was eventually forced to support civil rights legislation. In other words, these diplomatic racist incidents continued until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
However, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, recent protests against police brutality have sparked a larger discussion of the racial and social injustice that persists 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.”