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Anthony J. Konstant, restaurateur, dies

Anthony K. Konstant, a civil rights advocate and restaurateur who led the way in desegregating restaurants on U.S. 40 in northeast Maryland and later owned the landmark Williamsburg Inn in White Marsh for many years, died Friday of heart failure at Oak Crest Village in Parkville.

The longtime White Marsh resident was 87.

The son of Greek immigrant restaurateurs, Mr. Konstant was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., and moved in the 1930s with his parents to Hollins Street in Southwest Baltimore, and then to Bel Air.

He was a 1941 graduate of Bel Air High School and enlisted in the Navy during World War II, where he was a gunner's mate and participated in the invasion of the Philippines and Okinawa and in the occupation of Japan.

After the war, Mr. Konstant returned to Bel Air and later attended Pennsylvania State University on the GI Bill of Rights, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1953 in restaurant management.

In 1956, he opened the Redwood Inn in Aberdeen with his father and a business partner, Steve Karas.

Before Interstate 95, when U.S. 40 was the main north-south route through the state, restaurant owners had for years routinely refused to serve meals to black travelers.

An international furor resulted in the spring of 1961, when William Fitzjohn, charge d'affaires for Sierra Leone in Washington, and his driver were refused service at a Howard Johnson restaurant in Hagerstown.

On June 26, 1961, another incident occurred when Adam Malick Soo, Chad's ambassador to the United States, who was traveling to Washington to present his credentials to President John F. Kennedy, stopped at a restaurant on U.S. 40 in Edgewood and was turned away.

Nine incidents had occurred that year along U.S. 40, which aroused the ire of President Kennedy and a suggestion from Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes that diplomats traveling U.S. 40 should select restaurants with an open-door policy.

Mr. Konstant and eight other restaurant owners came together to try to resolve the issue.

Mr. Konstant embarked upon visits to 35 restaurants along the highway in northeast Maryland to try and convince owners that dropping their objections to serving black customers was in their best interest.

"It is not an easy thing to go up to a Negro and tell him you won't serve him. It is morally and Christianly wrong," Mr. Konstant told The Evening Sun at the time.

Deliberations with fellow restaurant owners eventually hit a snag, leaving Mr. Konstant frustrated and angry that the decision wasn't unanimous.

"But at most places, the operators said integration was the only decent, moral thing to do, and that they were willing if everybody else was," he said.

"If I had to do it all over again I would have quietly desegregated, and that would have been that. It's the only sensible thing to do," Mr. Konstant told the newspaper.

In early November, the Congress of Racial Equality threatened demonstrations and sit-ins at unwelcoming establishments.

The restaurant owners eventually backed down and agreed to abandon their segregationist policies.

"I'm not bitter about CORE's role in this. Let's face it, we never would have done it if they had not applied pressure. They were fighting for a principle," said Mr. Konstant.

The Evening Sun observed that it was Mr. Konstant "who more than any one man was responsible for persuading a substantial number of restaurants along Route 40 to integrate."

"For his civil rights efforts, he received a letter of thanks from Robert F. Kennedy, who was then attorney general," said a nephew, David Geer of Kingsville.

In 1964, Mr. Konstant and his partner, Mr. Karas, whom he eventually bought out, purchased what was then called Brooks' Williamsburg Inn on U.S. 40 in White Marsh. It was known for its Colonial decor, oak beam ceilings, a grand fireplace and waitresses wearing outfits from the era.

"The Williamsburg Inn is a Maryland restaurant from another era, when crab imperial was king and the size of manhattans was more important than the wine list," wrote Sun food critic Elizabeth Large in a 2000 review. "So many of these places have closed up shop that perhaps we ought to designate this one as a historical landmark, so future generations can see how Baltimoreans used to eat out."

The inn was known for its prime rib, steaks and treatment of traditional Maryland seafood dishes such as crab cakes, crab balls, stuffed oysters and crab Norfolk with Smithfield ham.

"Lobster and crab imperial had generous lumps of shellfish in a buttery, mayonnaisey, deliciously wicked imperial sauce — by far the best of our choices. But soft-shelled crabs generously stuffed with crabs weren't far behind," wrote Ms. Large.

Until he moved to the Parkville retirement community five years ago, Mr. Konstant lived in a house behind the restaurant.

An impeccably dressed man, Mr. Konstant usually sat in the front of the restaurant, where he greeted diners.

"He loved working the front of the house but was also very knowledgeable in the kitchen. There wasn't anything he couldn't do," said his nephew, the restaurant's business manager.

"Food was his hobby, and he was always watching cooking shows on TV. His passion was Italian food, and he loved either going to Little Italy or Ikaros," he said.

"Tony was a man's man, and never missed a chance to say 'Hi' when you went to the Redwood or the Williamsburg. He was a really good person," said Todd Holden, a longtime Aegis reporter and Harford County photographer.

"He was a perfect host, and it wasn't an act. He genuinely was glad to see old acquaintances when they stopped by," he said. "He ran a good place, served good food that was fairly priced. It was always a pleasure to go out for a meal there. Lots of folks are sure going to miss Tony."

Mr. Konstant was still active in the business at his death.

He was an avid golfer and was a member of Winters Run Golf Club in Bel Air.

He was a communicant of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore.

Services were held Tuesday at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Towson.

Also surviving are his wife of 59 years, the former Clarice Chapman; a brother, Gus J. Konstant of Aberdeen; two sisters, Joan Geer of Bel Air and Katherin Harlamon of Waterbury, Conn.; and several other nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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