In the fall of 1959, four young men who were students at North Carolina A&T came together to challenge the systemic institution of racism known as segregation. Returning from a Christmas Vacation trip to NYC, one of them – Joseph McNeil – was denied service at a Greyhound bus station in Greensboro and vowed to take action instead of just talk about the injustice.
On Feb 1, 1960 McNeil along with Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond (The Greensboro Four) entered the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., around 4:30 p.m.
and purchased merchandise at several counters. They sat down at the store’s “whites only” lunch counter and ordered coffee, and were denied service, ignored and then asked to leave. They remained seated at the counter until the store closed early at 5 p.m. Upon exiting the store their picture was taken by a local newspaper photographer and it commenced a visual echo that travelled across the world (officials at the Vatican in Rome reported seeing the image of the four young men only a few days later.
After exiting Woolworths that evening, the four young men immediately returned to campus and recruited others for the cause.
On Feb 2, twenty-five men, including the four freshmen, and four women returned to the F.W. Woolworth store. The students sat from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. while white patrons heckled them. Undaunted, they sat with books and study materials to keep them busy. They were still refused service.
Reporters from both newspapers, a TV camera man and Greensboro police officers monitored the scene. Once the sit-ins hit the news, momentum picked up and students across the community embraced the movement. That night, students met with college officials and concerned citizens. They organized the Student Executive Committee for Justice to plan the continued demonstrations. This committee sent a letter to the president of F.W. Woolworth in New York requesting that his company “take a firm stand to eliminate discrimination”. Meanwhile, at its regular monthly meeting, the NAACP voted in unanimous support of the students’ efforts.
By Feb 3 more than 60 students, one-third of them female, returned to the Greensboro store and sat down at every available lunch counter seat. Students from Bennett College and Dudley High School increased the number of protesters, and many carpooled to and from the F.W. Woolworth store to sit-in shifts.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan, including the state’s official chaplain George Dorsett, were present. White patrons taunted the students as they studied. A statement issued from F.W. Woolworth’s national headquarters read that company policy was “to abide by local custom”.
By Feb 4 more than 300 students participate in the protests. Students from N.C. A&T, Bennett College and Dudley High School occupied every seat at the lunch counter. Three white supporters (Genie Seaman, Marilyn Lott and Ann Dearsley) from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNCG), joined the protest. As tensions grew, police kept the crowd in check. Waiting students then marched to the basement lunch counter at S.H. Kress & Co., the second store targeted by the Student Executive Committee, and the Greensboro sit-ins spread.
That evening, student leaders, college administrators and representatives from F.W. Woolworth and Kress stores held talks. The stores refused to integrate as long as other downtown facilities remained segregated. Students insisted the F.W. Woolworth and Kress retail stores would remain targets, and the meeting ended without resolution.
By Feb 5, tensions mounted when 50 white males were seated at the Woolworth counter. Sit-in participants, including white students from area colleges, filled the dozen or so remaining seats. Police removed two white youth from the store for swearing and yelling. By 3 p.m., more than 300 people were present. Members of both races were escorted from the premises. Three whites were arrested and the store closed at 5:30 pm.
Store representatives, students and college officials met once again that evening. F.W. Woolworth personnel took issue with the students limiting their protests to two stores and asked college administrators to end the sit-ins. Administrators plainly stated they could not control the private activities of students. Some administrators recommended store officials consider temporarily closing the counters. The meeting adjourned after two hours of debate.
Early on the morning of Feb 6, more than 1,400 N.C. A&T students met in Harrison Auditorium, including student and football player, Jesse Jackson. After voting to continue the protest, many headed to the F.W. Woolworth store. They filled every seat as the store opened. A large number of counter protesters showed up as well. By noon, more than 1,000 people packed the store.
At 1 p.m., a caller warned a bomb was set to explode at 1:30 p.m. The crowd moved to the Kress store, which immediately closed. Arrests were made outside both stores. The F.W. Woolworth store was cleared and closed as the the manager announced the temporary closing of the lunch counter in the interest of public safety.
That evening at N.C. A&T, a mass rally of 1,600 students voted to suspend demonstrations for two weeks. Dean William Gamble proclaimed this would give the stores time “to set policies regarding food service for Negro students”.
By Feb 8, students in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Durham, N.C., held sit-ins to demonstrate their solidarity with Greensboro students. Sit-in protests quickly followed in North Carolina cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and High Point. The movement also gained momentum and spread to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and even F.W. Woolworth stores in New York City.
By the end of February, the sit-in movement had spread to more than 30 cities in eight states.
By the end of March 1960 the sit-in Movement had spread to 55 cities in 13 states.
By April, with the students vowing to continue the protests, both the F.W. Woolworth and Kress stores officially closed their lunch counters.
Speaking at Bennett College, NAACP legal council Thurgood Marshall urged attendees not to compromise. The protests strengthened after an economic boycott of the two stores was organized by local leaders.
Easter weekend, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized a meeting of sit-in students from all over the nation at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Leader Ella Baker encouraged students to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) to organize the effort.
By June, protests expanded to Meyers and Walgreens.
By the end of July, F.W. Woolworth employees Charles Bess, Mattie Long, Susie Morrison and Jamie Robinson are the first African-Americans to eat at the lunch counter. The headline of The Greensboro Record read “Lunch Counters Integrated Here”.
By August 1961, more than 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins, which resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. Sit-ins at “whites only” lunch counters inspired subsequent kneel-ins at segregated churches, sleep-ins at segregated motel lobbies, swim-ins at segregated pools, wade-ins at segregated beaches, read-ins at segregated libraries, play-ins at segregated parks and watch-ins at segregated movies.
America was never the same.
The Museum in Greensboro, NC is built around the old F.W. Woolworth building. The building was slated for razing in 2007. With loud cries of injustice, this was resisted and after significant organization and fundraising, the property was purchased and a museum constructed to preserve the history. It was designed and structured by the same company which built the Civil Rights Museum constructed around the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
I highly encourage anyone who is anywhere near the area to go through the museum. You will see our country – and hear its history – with a completely new understanding and attention to details.