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Greensboro Sit-Ins at Woolworth’s, February-July 1960
As black people residing in colonized territories throughout Africa were close to reaching independence from European nations in early 1960, many African-Americans residing in the United States were also gaining a new social conscious and making new ground in the fight against oppression.1 It was during the 1960s that the movement for racial equality and civil rights truly came into its own, with a key portion of the civil rights movement – the sit-in movement – igniting in Greensboro at the beginning of the decade.
Like much of the southern United States at the turn of the decade, Greensboro, North Carolina, was largely segregated and lead almost exclusively by white elected officials. The city’s public schools were segregated. Many businesses in the downtown area, including various diners and theaters, had designated “whites only” sections and denied African American patrons certain services. There were public buildings with separate water fountains and “colored” waiting rooms, and some establishments had separate entrances for black patrons.2 Greensboro was also home to public swimming pools and golf courses that were segregated; African Americans had requested integration of these facilities in the 1950s.3
But there were a number of factors setting Greensboro apart from much of the South as well, and because of this, the social climate in Greensboro more readily lent itself to social progression. Historically, Greensboro could trace its tolerant climate to Quaker influences dating back to the 1700s.4 By the mid-1900s, many saw Greensboro, a city governed by sophisticated lawyers associated with large companies, as a bustling “New South” city that lacked some of the racist attitudes prevalent in many other southern cities; business and educational spokesmen at the time declared that Greensboro actually had a “better class” of “colored citizens.”5 Greensboro was also home to five colleges – three white and two black – and these institutions provided the city with intellectual stimulation and a population of energetic young people with progressive attitudes. Greensboro was also the first city in the South to announce that it would comply with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared public school segregation unlawful (however, Greensboro schools did not actually integrate until the 1970s, and many city residents were resentful of the delay).6 [Read more about the integration of Greensboro schools]
If Greensboro – with its complex racial dynamics – was the ideal city for the birth of the sit-ins, then North Carolina A&T University – with its previous record of protest activities – provided the ideal campus climate for students seeking to bring about radical social change. In the late 1930s, A&T students were involved in a series of strikes in protest of administration policies. In 1937, A&T students boycotted local movie theaters to protest the practice of deleting certain film scenes that involved African Americans; the 1937 film boycotts did not end until a theater brought African American jazz musician Fats Waller to Greensboro for a special concert.7
Listen to then-A&T chancellor F.D. Bluford’s successor,Warmoth Gibbs
and and A&T alum David Morehead recall Gov. Hodges’ visit.
There had also been protest activities by A&T students throughout the mid and late 1950s. One noted incident occurred in 1955 when then-North Carolina governor Luther Hodges spoke before a crowd of students on campus. Hodges advocated voluntary segregation and asked the all-black North Carolina Teachers Association to endorse racial separation in schools.8 During his A&T visit, Hodges criticized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and said “nigra” – a mispronunciation of “negro” generally considered offensive – several times in his speech. Students responded by making noises to distract the governor, who then stormed out of the room in humiliation.
With a record of social demonstration already established, it was in the spring semester of 1960 that A&T would become the birthplace of one of the most significant movements of the civil rights era. On A&T’s campus, four freshmen students – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair, Jr. – spent many evenings together talking about racial injustice in America and the need to take action to stop these injustices.9 These discussions inspired the young men to take action themselves, and support from Ralph Johns, a white, downtown clothing store owner who despised segregation, further motivated the young men.
Sometime in January 1960, McNeil suggested the sit-in tactic to the group.10 The four freshmen then met at A&T’s Bluford Library on February 1, and walked fifteen minutes to the Woolworth’s department store downtown.11 Woolworth’s sold a variety of items at affordable prices and served black and white customers, but the Greensboro Woolworth’s location – and many other Woolworth’s locations throughout the South – had a segregated lunch counter that would only seat white patrons.
The four students purchased small items in other parts of the store and kept their receipts, then sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. After being denied service, they produced their receipts and asked why their money was good everywhere else at the store, but not at the lunch counter.12 This action prompted a black Woolworth’s employee to tell the students to leave, saying they were making the black race look bad; meanwhile, the lunch counter clerk, who was white, walked off and spoke with store manager Clarence “Curly” Harris, who advised her to ignore them in hopes that they would get bored and leave. The students remained at the lunch counter into the evening and the first day of the sit-ins ended without any significant incident. The Greensboro newspapers had received a tip about the start of the sit-in movement, but were slow to pick up the story, and many Greensboro residents were not aware of the beginning of demonstrations on February 1.13
About sixteen more A&T students joined the original four for demonstrations at Woolworth’s on the second day, Tuesday, February 2. By Wednesday, students occupied 63 of Woolworth’s 65 lunch counter seats and the demonstrations had spread to a nearby S.H. Kress department store.14 On Thursday, three white students from Woman’s College (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro) had joined in the demonstrations, and by Friday, more than three hundred students were protesting in Greensboro.15 Friday also brought the first arrests, as three white men were charged for their acts of intimidation; one of these three was charged for setting a black man’s coat on fire at the lunch counter. As the number of demonstrators grew, so did the number of white men and teenagers who went downtown to counter-protest and heckle the demonstrators.
The Greensboro NAACP endorsed the sit-in movement on Wednesday of the first week, but students and the NAACP denied that the NAACP had organized the movement. The Greensboro Daily News, Unitarian Fellowship, and the local Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) also voiced support of the sit-ins.16 North Carolina attorney general Malcolm Seawell declared that there were no laws prohibiting businesses from serving both black and white patrons, but also no laws forcing private businesses to serve those they did not want to serve.17 Governor Hodges declared the sit-ins to be counterproductive and a threat to law and order, while U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower suspended any judgment on the “sit-down disorders.”18 The national news media also picked up coverage of the demonstrations, and by the end of the second week, similar student-led sit-in demonstrations were held in other cities throughout the South.19 People also picketed at Woolworth’s locations in northern cities to support the southern protests; individual Woolworth’s stores complied with the local practices of their cities and thus northern Woolworth’s lunch counters were integrated.
The sit-ins in Greensboro continued until February 20, 1960.20 At this time, a Human Relations Committee headed by city councilman Ed Zane was formed to help negotiate a compromise.21 Local business owners, however, seemed to favor maintaining the status quo and did not genuinely work toward a compromise.22 On April 1, 1960, students resumed demonstrations after Zane’s committee failed to reach a favorable resolution. As many as 1,200 A&T and Bennett College students picketed various businesses in the city, while prominent civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall advised students not to accept any form of token integration. In mid-April, a three-day meeting was held at Shaw University – a black college in Raleigh, North Carolina – to coordinate goals for the sit-ins; students from black schools all over the south, including A&T, attended.23
As sit-ins resumed in Greensboro and continued throughout the South, affected businesses took a financial hit, and many stores gradually started to integrate. Greensboro Woolworth’s manager Clarence Harris knew in April that he would soon integrate his store, as an order had been handed down from the Woolworth’s regional office calling for the Greensboro lunch counter to integrate.24 The decision of when to integrate was left up to Harris, but his decision was hastened by the integration of the lunch counter at the nearby Winston-Salem location.
On July 25, 1960, the lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth’s was integrated when three black Woolworth’s employees were served at the counter.25 There was little publicizing of the integration in the news media and black customers did not begin dining at the lunch counter en masse; many students who protested during the academic year had actually left town for the summer. The Greensboro S.H. Kress also integrated that summer, and when students returned in the fall some visited the stores to test out the integrated experience, but it was no longer a novelty to receive equal service.
By the time the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter integrated, the company had lost as much as $200,000 due to demonstrations and Clarence Harris used sales drop-offs to argue that people who truly wanted Woolworth’s integrated never shopped there to begin with.26
Greensboro was forever changed by the sit-ins. They upset the racial status quo in unpredictable ways that seemed to raise black expectations, both in Greensboro and across the South. Some attributed the movement for the hastening of integration of Greensboro public schools, as African-Americans felt more strongly that they should fight for their rights.27 These sit-ins also set the stage for another set of protests in the city three years later; this round of demonstrations sought integration of movie theaters, restaurants, motels, and other places of public accommodation whose owners had considered the 1960 movement to be a matter affecting only variety stores. [Read more about the 1963 protests] Most importantly, however, the move to integrate the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960 helped to bolster not only a city-wide but a nation-wide civil rights movement.
Diversity Resident Librarian, UNCG Libraries
1. Miles Wolff, Lunch at the 5 & 10 (Chicago : I.R. Dee, 1990), 58.
3.William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 110.
4. Yoder, Edwin M. “Greensboro: Where the Movement Began,” Greensboro Daily News, June, 21, 1970.
11. Jo Spivey, “Four Lonely Blacks Woke a Nation,” Greensboro Record, June 30, 1970.
18. Chafe, 120; Yoder, “Greensboro: Where the Movement Began.”
21. Yoder, “Greensboro: Where the Movement Began.”