February 1, 1960 looked like a normal winter day in Greensboro. Four young men, students at North Carolina A&T University, bought toothpaste, combs and other personal items at a counter in the Woolworth’s store on South Elm Street. No one ever thought that would be newsworthy. Apparently, it was.
“Look at the indentations on the floor,” said the tour guide at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. She pointed downward at the tile floor in the Woolworth’s lunch counter area. “There were display racks here.”
She was illustrating how less than 30 feet behind the lunch counter the young men made purchases and were served by Woolworth’s staff. Yet, at the lunch counter, they were refused service—in spite of holding receipts for their purchases from the other part of the store.
“Black patrons would have had to order their food to go at the end of the counter,” our guide told, “but white patrons would be permitted to sit and be served.”
“Yes, I remember that,” a lady next to me nodded.
“We sure did,” another agreed.
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum
In 1993 Woolsworth opened as the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
I joined the local chapter of the NAACP and the Sankofa African American Heritage Workshop for youth ages 10-15 on a trip to the museum. It’s a trip I’ve long wanted to do: Visit Woolworth’s counter, and stand where Joe McNeil stood with his compatriots, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan). They took their seats at the lunch counter and calmly began a movement that would spread across the nation. I knew the lunch counter sit-in happened in Greensboro, but I did not know enough about it. In an effort to set the stage for the circumstances that led the Greensboro Four to their action, we walked through the Hall of Shame, which depicts lynching, protests against school desegregation, and ultimately horrifying photographs of an open-casket funeral.
“Emmet Till,” all the adults whispered.
“This is the photograph of the son she sent to Mississippi,” our tour guide said. “This is the son she got back.”
Till’s mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral after the brutal, torturous death of her teenage son in Mississippi remains an important and seemingly painful moment in America’s consciousness.
We walked into another gallery about life during Jim Crow with separate drinking fountains, smaller doors and a Coke machine that straddled a wall in a waiting room with different prices listed. In an auditorium, we watched a film about the Greensboro Four having a strategy session in a dorm room of Scott Hall on the NC A&T campus. Ms. Smith-Walker, one of the leaders of the Sankofa trip, pointed out to the students (and our tour guide) that Joseph McNeil is from Wilmington. The film was what one would expect: terrible and obvious writing with equally awful performances. But we were not there for a film critique.
The screen slid away and a recreation of room 2128 became visible. Two twin iron beds, a partner’s desk and two trunks, like my mom took to college a few years later, were in the room, along with desk lamps and a typewriter. On the wall next to us, a section of the brick wall from the dormitory was preserved and displayed. Scott Hall was pulled down in 2004 and replaced with four buildings known on campus as “Aggie Village”: Richmond Hall, McCain Hall, Blair Hall, and McNeil Hall. I touched the bricks and tried to just breathe, as I thought about all those walls had seen and protected in over a half century.
They chose a section without bullet holes, I thought.
The Greensboro Uprising in 1969 included the National Guard shooting at Scott Hall, and in many pictures bricks were riddled with bullets. The bricks housed laughter, heartbreak, elation, love, camaraderie and achievement. They oversaw some of the most important memories in thousands of people’s lives over the years. For a fleeting moment, I touched their smooth surface and thanked them.
No Time For Neutrality
“I thought the Woolworth’s counter was in the Smithsonian?” Jock asked when I announced my plans to join the trip.
According to our tour guide, indeed, part of it is in the Smithsonian in the African American History Museum. The rest is still at Woolworth’s in Greensboro.
I am not of the generation that remembers Woolworth’s lunch counters. The closest I come is my mother’s reference to all K-Mart-like stores as “dime stores” (which was endlessly perplexing to me as a small child—everything at K-Mart cost more than $0.10). So walking into the lunch counter was not like returning to a place I knew “so well.” Though, for several people on our trip, it clearly was exactly that. It felt awe-inspiring, a phrase I apply to divine actions. Because here we were, standing in a room with the furniture that became the stage for a pivotal story in our nation’s history. Four young men sat down and asked to be served a cup of coffee. That’s something many of us do most mornings of our lives in a public establishment. Then we drink it in the company assembled. But these four were refused.
They stayed until closing time and were photographed leaving Woolworth’s that night. They came back the next day … and the next. They were joined by other young men from A&T. They were joined by young women from Bennet College. According to the Bennett College history, a dozen “Bennet Belles” were arrested on February 4, 1960 for protesting at Woolworth’s.
By February 4, the original Four had swollen to over 300 and included protesters from Women’s College (what became UNCG) and Dudley High School. They sat at the counter in shifts. Intense energy radiated off the walls and furniture. It was palpable and left me not just considering the counter protesters who swore and yelled and threatened the demonstrators, but of the people who kept coming and sitting down to eat lunch, like nothing was happening. One news report from the time tells of a protester passing a patron sugar for coffee. How can anyone look at what was occurring and pretend neutrality is an option?
It is money that drives decisions for businesses. When I trained for Direct Action years ago, one of the first things we covered was profit motive: We (the protesters) were aiming to cost the company enough money that they would cease pursuing activities with which we disagreed. That is how the protestors ultimately won in the Woolworth’s case. In July the store lost so much revenue they had to abandon this policy, but the store manager didn’t want to give into the students. So he had three of the African American employees change out of their uniforms into their street clothes and go order drinks at the lunch counter. He integrated the lunch counter through them.
In the Lunch Counter Hall there is an interactive map of the sit-ins that spread across the U..S as a result of this one in Greensboro. Ones associated with historically black colleges have special designations. They reach to Ohio and into the west; though, they are concentrated in the South. All of it started by four young men in Greensboro, one from Wilmington.
Honoring Joe McNeil
So do we have a statue to honor Mr. McNeil? No. We do not. There has been some discussion of trying to rename one of the parks after him. Thus far, it doesn’t appear to have gained actual traction. Ms. Smith-Walker and Ms. Hilton-Stalling, leaders from Sankofa, both agree recognition of Mr. McNeil in his hometown is vital.
“A significant recognition is in order—be it a statue, a school or a park!” Hilton-Stalling notes. “This is important for the community as a beacon of pride—that this gentleman was a ‘native son’ of our community. It could serve as a motivational tool for the youth to encourage them to ‘aim higher’ than whatever their current situation is.”
Smith-Walker concurs. “I think he deserves it because of what he has done in his lifetime for the civil rights movement. We don’t have a lot of civil rights activists from this area. We would be so honored to do something like that for him.”
Smith-Walker knew Mr. McNeil when he was younger. “He grew up on Wright Street,” she recalls. “I knew his mom and dad and aunts.”
“Were you surprised when you heard what he had done?” I ask.
“About his actions? Yes. We all were, but pleased,” she nods.
We walk pass the lunch counter and finish the tour of the museum, with mugshots and booking papers for numerous activists in the civil rights movement.
“There were white people, too?” one of the boys on our trip asks.
“Yes,” our tour guide confirms. I keep staring into faces in the pictures—barely older than many students on the trip—faces that are now half my age and wondering how they had the courage to take the actions they did. We all want to believe we would be called to the right side of history. We all want to believe we would act righteously, but how many of us would be the person at the lunch counter asking one of the protestors to pass the sugar?
The last room we visited in the museum had a photo mural of President Obama’s face created with pictures of civil rights activists: Dr. King, Gandhi, Congressman Lewis and many more. Our guide pointed out some of the people on the mural and their accomplishments, then pointed at a couple of blank spaces.
“Those are the spaces waiting to be filled in by you.”
She pointed to the kids in our group.
“I expect to see your face up here one day.”