Pedro A. Sanjuan, in 1982.
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: October 5, 2012
In the early 1960s, the State Department faced a prickly problem. Black diplomats from newly formed African nations were being denied service at restaurants along the highways between Washington and New York and barred from many of Washington’s best apartment buildings.
It was Pedro A. Sanjuan’s job to change that.
Mr. Sanjuan, who died at 82 on Sept. 28, was a State Department protocol officer who had to confront not only bigoted restaurant and motel owners but also laws that sanctioned racial discrimination.
As a 31-year-old who had worked onJohn F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Mr. Sanjuan learned of the diplomats’ humiliations soon after joining the new administration in early 1961. One African delegate to the United Nations, Mr. Sanjuan was told, had been barred from an airport restaurant while passing through Atlanta and consigned to a stool in a hangar, where he ate a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. The delegate later became his country’s prime minister.
As Mr. Sanjuan gathered information, particularly from a Washington Post reporter who was investigating the issue, he proposed a new office. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a friend, supported the idea, and Mr. Sanjuan became director of the Special Protocol Service Section.
His first battleground was the Maryland portion of Route 40, a federal highway. The ambassadors of Chad and Sierra Leone were among eight diplomats who had been refused service along there. The Chad ambassador was on his way to present his credentials to President Kennedy. The 7-year-old son of a diplomat was refused a glass of water.
Mr. Sanjuan visited more than 90 restaurants and drive-ins along the highway, and persuaded about half to serve blacks. He testified before the Maryland legislature on behalf of civil rights legislation. He met with representatives of the Congress of Racial Equality, the civil rights group known as CORE, which staged protests to pressure the restaurants. He spoke to civic groups.
“We pour millions into foreign aid,” he said. “How senseless it is to ruin this tremendous effort by refusing to serve a cup of coffee to a customer whose skin is dark.”
The situation festered until the Maryland legislature passed a law in 1963 opening public accommodations. The landmark federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented the progress. Historians say publicity about the diplomats had accelerated these steps.
President Kennedy had first suggested that the Route 40 problem could be solved by urging the Africans to fly, according to Nick Bryant, a former BBC correspondent, in his 2006 book “The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality.” Kennedy later apologized, to individual diplomats personally and to Maryland civic leaders in the first eight months of 1961, Mr. Bryant wrote.
In 1962, Mr. Sanjuan prepared a report saying that of the 211 most desirable apartment buildings in Northwest Washington, only 8 accepted nonwhite diplomatic tenants.
He invited real estate brokers to form a committee, and in the next eight months, 50 requests for apartments by nonwhite diplomats were filled.
Pedro Arroyo Sanjuan was born on Aug. 10, 1930, in Havana. His father, also named Pedro Sanjuan, was a composer and conductor who founded the Havana Philharmonic, since disbanded; his mother, Pilar Arroyo Sanjuan, was a professor and writer. The family immigrated to the United States in 1941, and Mr. Sanjuan became a citizen in 1947.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., and a master’s degree in Russian history from Harvard. He served in the Navy from 1957 to 1959 and spoke nine languages.
Mr. Sanjuan held many other federal positions, including spokesman for arms control efforts under President Jimmy Carter and assistant secretary of the interior under President Ronald Reagan.
In 1983, Mr. Sanjuan joined the United States delegation at the United Nations as a policy planner, and in 2005 he published a book about his experience, titled “The UN Gang: A Memoir of Incompetence, Corruption, Espionage, Anti-Semitism and Islamic Extremism at the UN Secretariat.”
He also wrote satirical books, one of which, “Dubya & Eddie” (2002), imagined President George W. Bush getting advice from a pet coyote. Mr. Sanjuan painted in a surrealist-inspired style and once exhibited his art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. He also wrote opinion articles for newspapers.
Mr. Sanjuan died at his home in Somers, N.Y. His wife, the former Patricia Ann Martin, said the cause was complications of a stroke. He is also survived by his daughters Victoria, Pilar and India Sanjuan; and six grandchildren.
Mr. Sanjuan’s efforts on behalf of the African diplomats did not go unnoticed by American blacks. Many were appalled and amused to witness a level of concern for the diplomats’ welfare that they had never themselves experienced.
The Afro-American, a weekly newspaper in Baltimore, dressed two of its reporters in morning clothes and top hats and a third in robe and fez, hired a limousine from an undertaker, and sent them out on Route 40 to dine.
They were admitted to every restaurant except one, where their diplomatic credentials were demanded.