4. Woolworth’s Sit-In, February 1-July 25, 1960
By the mid-20th century, Greensboro, North Carolina was home to numerous textile mills. Northern industrialists had long been moving their massive mill operations south to exploit cheap labor and close proximity to cotton and tobacco fields. When the railroad arrived, more mills opened and the city’s population increased rapidly. Residents in Greensboro took pride in their “gate city” and its five colleges. Two of those colleges were historically black colleges: Bennett College for Women and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCA&T).
Race relations in Greensboro, and other parts of the country, remained strained after the 1954 Brown decision. State and local boards remained defiant at desegregating public schools and many people were still against race mixing. African Americans were permitted to shop and spend their money in most places; however, they were not permitted to eat in the same places as whites. Activists seeking to shed light on the racial inequalities began using a new method of non-violent protest, the sit-in.
As early as 1939, sit-ins were used as a way to grab media attention to the plight of blacks in the United States. A black lawyer, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, organized a sit-in in the hopes of forcing a public library in Alexandria, Virginia to change its whites only policy. In 1942, 1949, 1954, and 1959, the Congress of Racial Equality organized sit-ins in Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Wichita that successfully forced local banks to end their segregation polices. For four men in Greensboro, the successes of such non-violent sit-ins offered hope for change.
Woolworth was a national chain of drug stores that had a lunch counter. Supported by the corporate office, local store managers were permitted to set store policies based upon local customs. At the store in Greensboro, this meant that blacks could shop at the store but they could not eat at the lunch counter. For four students from NCA&T it was time to bring attention to the practices of the store. During the late afternoon on February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond purchased items at Woolworth, sat at the lunch counter, and asked for a cup of coffee. When they were refused service they remained in their seats until forced to leave at closing time.
On the morning of the 2nd, twenty black students from NCA&T and Bennett College arrived at the Woolworth counter. Each sat on a stool and requested service to which they were denied. Undaunted, the stools remained occupied by black protesters. On the third day, 60 people crammed the lunch counter. Woolworth issued a statement that they would maintain the “local custom” of a segregated lunch counter in their store. On the fourth day, 300 protesters arrived at the lunch counter, hindering the operations of the store. Organizers expanded the sit-in movement to the Kress drug store on the next block.
Within a week the sit-in movement had spread to other cities such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, and Winston-Salem to name a few. Soon sit-ins were organized in Richmond and Nashville. Finally, after months of protest and loss of revenue, the store manager asked three black employees to change out of their work uniforms and sit at the lunch counter. With the serving of the three black employees on July 25, 1960, the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro was officially desegregated.
Today the lunch counter and the former Woolworth building in downtown Greensboro is the site of the International Civil Rights Museum that is devoted to the stories and research of equality struggles throughout the world. The Greensboro Four are honored with a statue on the campus of NCA&T.