Nance: February 1st marks the 50th anniversary of the Sit-in of The Greensboro Four, an historic event which, due to the media attention it received and the momentum it launched for desegregation, has been called the Dawn of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. My hometown marked the anniversary by opening the International Civil Rights Center and Museum at the old Woolworth & Co. building on Market Street on January 20th. The museum includes both a full-sized restoration and a child-sized replica of the lunch counter…and that seems fitting, for I have a child-sized, vivid memory of the time and the place.
Before the sit-ins, that particular Woolworth’s was familiar to me for Saturday morning visits to kid-level displays of the kind of five-and-dime, “Made In Japan” trinkets no six year old could resist; it’s lunch counter gained my devotion for vanilla-spiked fountain Coca Colas and buttery grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread…manna meant for all children. Black children could shop at Woolworth’s, but they could only eat standing with their parents at a designated “Non-Whites” area at the end of the big counter…and few parents would choose such a meal for their child.
By the time of the sit-ins, I was twelve and had outgrown Saturday visits to the dime-store after dance class; in seventh grade, I was being taught to read the newspaper seriously and to study current events as part of the flow of history. I was old enough to understand that something monumental, and monumentally sensible, was happening in our hometown. It seemed to pre-teen me that the grown-up rules for segregation, the visible manifestations of Jim Crow laws that were sometimes marked with signs and sometimes merely “understood,” were just stupid. I was sorry for the tension stirred by the protests, for there was real fear that harm would come to the college kids thought to be primarily involved, but I was pulling for them.
Sheria: I was born March 26, 1955 in Wilson County. The year before I was born, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its first decision in Brown v. the Topeka Kansas Board of Education, striking down legal segregation.
Nance: To a child’s mind, separate doors, separate toilets and water fountains, the designated back seats of the bus, and the forbidden seats at the counter were all in the same class as the arbitrary rules of children’s games like Keep-Away, Red-Rover, and Hop-Scotch: somebody just made up such silliness and it only worked if everybody agreed to play the game. The Sit-in marked the day some smart folks refused to play. My 12-year-old opinion was: “Well, it’s high time and I’m glad somebody was brave.” I didn’t realize that the brave folks were not all that much older than me, but that would have made sense to me, too. I know now that the sit-in did not occur in a vacuum, that there had been a long history of resistance to Jim Crow and substantial challenges to segregation elsewhere in the country that had grown over the previous twenty years. Now, it’s clear that the actions of the Four could not have been attempted in the South at an earlier time.
On February 1, 1960, four young AT&T College students, Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain (seventeen years old) did a little late afternoon school supply and sundry shopping (toothpaste!) at Woolworth. When they had made their purchases, they sat down at the Whites-Only lunch counter and ordered coffee and doughnuts. This was so unprecedented, so unlikely a thing, that they were ignored and remained un-served until Woolworth’s closed at 5:00 p.m. Franklin McCain recalls:
"I think the waitress and the counter people were so perplexed and so surprised they tried to ignore us: 'They're not, they can't be sitting there! They're not sitting there! I can't believe what I'm seeing!'"
Sheria: I wasn’t quite five years old when four young AT&T College students, Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and ordered coffee and donuts. It was 1960 and I don’t remember the sit-ins but I know all about them. The adults in my life talked about them for years.
Nance: It was some time before anyone thought to call the store’s owner. According to the timeline provided by the Greensboro News and Record, on February 2nd, the Greensboro Four were joined by twenty-five men, along with five young women from Greensboro’s Bennett College for “colored” women. By February 3rd, sixty-three of the sixty-five available seats at the lunch counter were occupied by protesters, and, on February 4th, five young white women from Greensboro Women’s College (UNC-G, today) joined them. There were many unsung heroes in those first days.
Ann Dearsley, Jeannie Seaman and Marilyn Lott were among the Greensboro Women’s College students. In an excellent interview with the Greensboro News and Record (January 17, 2010), Ann Dearsley-Vernon recalls:
“We just read it in the newspaper one morning, and by mid-afternoon or early afternoon, we arrived” …The girls ordered nothing. The waitress backed away. An arts major, Dearsley-Vernon began sketching faces in the crowd on her lined notebook paper — even as, at one point, someone pressed a knife against the back of her Woman’s College jacket. The young women stayed until closing time but did not come back again... As the women stood up for their principles, there was still the matter of getting back to campus once the store closed.The protest group eventually grew to over 300 (on a day known as Black Saturday) and was largely peaceful, although there was a regular police presence and unnecessary arrests were made. Logistics during the protest were a problem; the protesters could not risk being stopped along the route to Woolworth’s. The people who provided assistance to the original Four and who joined them to keep the counter manned throughout store hours are often referred to collectively as “The Fifth Man.”
Realizing their predicament, a group of young black men — who Dearsley-Vernon would come to learn were members of the N.C. A&T football team — joined hands around them and escorted the three past the angry crowd.
Back at school, the women were chastised by school officials and told they would have to leave. That changed after parents intervened, but Dearsley-Vernon didn’t get to walk across the stage to receive her diploma. Still, she doesn’t regret being guided by her convictions that day.
“Of many actions in my life,” she said, “this is one I would do again.”
Edward Lee McAdoo remembers being spit upon and threatened as he provided transportation from the colleges to the sit-in.Of course, the real heroes were the four young men who dared to do the unthinkable first, and who kept coming back again and again…the backbone of the beginning of the end of segregated dining in America. There is some disagreement about whether the protests were planned solely by these young men or whether the female students at Bennett College, along with a professor, were the original planners, but the Greensboro Four had the weight of the entire history of the country riding on their shoulders that first day.
McAdoo’s job was to drive reinforcements to the lunch counter demonstration in his ’57 Galaxy convertible when the protesters thinned.
“David said, 'Cause, we’ve got to keep those chairs filled,’” McAdoo said, referring to his cousin, David Richmond. When McAdoo wasn’t giving rides, he sat alongside the others at the counter. Beginning the second day of the protest, he kept coming back.
“He dropped everything and became our main supporter,’’ Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair, Jr.) said of the former Marine. “He was very upset that he came home from service and was treated like a second-class citizen.”
McAdoo had to be extra careful as he rumbled back and forth downtown.
“I knew I couldn’t get arrested because I had a job to do,” McAdoo, now 74, recalled. “I had to get the people there. When the police tried to make an arrest, I’d move back in the crowd.”
Sheria: What I remember is the segregation that continued to prevail long after those first sit-ins. My mother would take me, and my younger sister and brother with her when she went shopping. The grocery store was fine. It was a black grocery store. Not black owned, the owner was white, but it was on the black side of town and only black people shopped at the store. Of course, we weren’t black then; we were colored.
I learned practical things like which stores had two water fountains and two bathrooms. If there was only one fountain and one bathroom it was marked white only. If there was a second fountain or bathroom, it would be for colored only. Downtown Wilson merchants ignored the Brown decisions of 1954 and 1955 that declared that separate but equal was inherently unequal, and that segregation was outlawed.
However, my biggest disappointment was that I couldn’t sit at the lunch counter at the dime store and have a soda with crushed ice. Wilson had a Roses Five and Dime Store and it sold everything. I was always thrilled to follow my mother around, staring at all the wondrous items that lined the store’s shelves. At the front, near the checkout line, was the lunch counter where people sat on stools and ate hot dogs, and ice cream, and drank sodas with a straw. Except black people weren’t allowed to sit at the counter and had to go down to the far end where there was a sign, Coloreds. We could purchase food and drink but we couldn't sit down at the counter to consume them.
In spite of Brown, in spite of those four young men sitting at that lunch counter in Greensboro, the restrictions, the blatant practices of racism continued until I was a teenager. My memories of this are clear and are my own, not stories told to me by the adults. Wilson’s famous barbecue restaurant for many years was a place named Parker’s Barbecue. It had a huge dining room but I didn’t see it until I was in my teens. Colored people had to purchase their food at the back door; we weren’t allowed to come inside and sit down. Even after the law changed, customs didn’t change.
The Wilson that I grew up in had a white waiting room and a colored waiting room at the health clinic, the train station, the doctor’s office, even the stone benches in front of the court house where designated by skin color. The facilities were never equal in quality. Sometimes, white people my age who grew up in Wilson tell me that they don’t remember this. I used to think that they were either intentionally lying or just damn stupid. However, I’ve come to another conclusion. I think that when you are not the object of the discrimination, that the existence of it often makes no impression on you; perhaps oppression only leaves lasting scars on its victims.
Sometimes, people who are much younger than I am, ask why we tolerated it, why we didn’t just push for equality, after all the law was on our side. I tell them the other story that the grownups talked about when I was growing up. In August 1956, when I was 17 months old, Emmett Till, age 14, was murdered in Mississippi.
Two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, and shot him in the head. Then they attached a 70 pound cotton gin fan to his body and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. His crime was being too familiar with the wife of one of the perpetrators [the details vary, some say he whistled at her and other stories say that he said “bye baby” as he was leaving the store where she worked]. The all male and all white jury deliberated 67 minutes before acquitting the two men. Following the trial, Look magazine paid Milam and Bryant $4,000 to tell their story. Double jeopardy had attached and so the two admitted to killing Emmett Till, explaining that they initially planned to just teach him a lesson but that Till was defiant and refused to show any fear, and they killed him to make an example of him.
Milam died in 1980 and Bryant in 1994, both of cancer. Neither ever expressed any remorse for what they had done.
I find what those four young men began at the Woolworth’s lunch counter nothing short of miraculous. I don’t know that I would have had that much bravery. They were college students; one of them was only 17. I think that they surely must have had some fear; I have no doubt that they knew the story of Emmett Till.
Nance: Within that first week of lunch-counter desegregation, around 300 blacks sat for a meal at Woolworth’s five-and-dime. I like to think that some of them were able to relax enough eventually to enjoy some pretty good grilled cheese sandwiches.
Sheria: On this 50th anniversary of that glorious act of civil disobedience, I salute Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain and all of those brave men and women that joined them day after day at that lunch counter and at lunch counters across America. The world in which I live now is so different that there are times when I almost forget what it was like to live in a world that pretended that separate was equal; almost…