Listen Live

Source: SAUL LOEB / Getty

It happened 61 years ago today. A group of four North Carolina A&T freshmen took a stand against racism and forever changed history.  Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond walked into downtown Greensboro around 4:30 p.m. and “sat-in” at the “whites only” lunch counter at F.W. Woolworth’s store.

The ‘Greensboro Four,’ as they became known as, refused to leave when denied service by the white kitchen staff and stayed in place until the store closed. A statement made that shocked the world at the time led to the desegregation of Woolworth’s lunch counter in July 1960. It also allowed for sit-ins to happen in other cities and had a direct impact on civil rights history.

According to a witness, “A white waitress told the four men “We don’t serve N**roes here.” Blair responded that he was just served 2 feet away, to which the waitress replied “N**roes eat at the other end.” An African-American girl who was cleaning behind the counter called them “stupid, ignorant, and troublemakers.”

Another African-American told them, “You’re just hurting race relations by sitting there”. However, an elderly white woman told them, “I am just so proud of you. My only regret is that you didn’t do this ten or fifteen years ago”.

Store manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave, and, when they would not budge, called his supervisor, who told him, “They’ll soon give up, leave and be forgotten.”

Harris allowed the students to stay and did not call police to evict them. The four freshmen stayed until the store closed that night, and then went back to the North Carolina A&T campus, where they recruited more students to join them the next morning.”

A pivotal moment that happened four years before the Civil Rights Act.

The next day word spread across the campus of N.C. A&T, and what was four turned into more than 30 African-Americans who showed back up to Woolworth’s to pack the store in solidarity.

The group sat-in and did school work during the store’s busiest hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Once again, those working behind the counter refused to serve the black patrons, and white customers who walked into the store harassed and threatened the students. None of that seemed to matter as the group held their ground.

The events quickly prompted local news reporters to flock to the store. After the second day of sitting in at Woolworth’s, students wrote the following letter to the president of the company:

“Dear Mr. President, We the undersigned are students at the Negro college in the city of Greensboro. Time and time again we have gone into Woolworth stores in Greensboro. We have bought thousands of items at the hundreds of counters in your stores. Our money was accepted without rancor or discrimination, and with politeness towards us, when at a long counter just three feet away our money is not acceptable because of the colour of our skins…… We are asking your company to take a firm stand to eliminate discrimination. We firmly believe that God will give you courage and guidance in solving the problem. Sincerely Yours, Student Executive Committee”

Less than 24 hours later, F.W. Woolworth’s national headquarters said that the company would “abide by local custom” and maintain its segregation policy.

No more than a few days later, the protests grew and students from other colleges in the area went to Greensboro to show their support.

On Feb. 6, 1960, over a thousand people congregated in and around Woolworth’s before a bomb threat forced the group of mostly students to vacate the store. The moment sparked a series of sit-in protests across the south over the next three months.

Fifty-five cities experienced the power of young black activism with sit-ins in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Durham and Nashville just to name a few. The sit-ins spread to other forms of public accommodation, including mass transportation, libraries, parks, swimming pools, beaches and museums mostly in the south.

As the protests continued, so did the tensions between the black students and white members of the community in Greensboro. However, the students did not relent and pressed on for the right to enjoy the same spaces as the whites.

On Monday, July 25, 1960, “After nearly $200,000 in losses, which is the equivalent of $1.82 million today, and a reduction in salary for not meeting sales goals, store manager Clarence Harris asked four black employees, Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones, and Charles Bess, to change out of their work clothes and order a meal at the counter. They were, quietly, the first African-American’s to be served at a Woolworth lunch counter.”

After realizing the power of sitting in peacefully, along with lost profits, Woolworth’s soon started to strip back their segregation policy across the county. A process that took five months, three weeks and three days. More than four years later, the Civil Right Act of 1964 was enacted to desegregate and allowed public accommodations for all.

In 1990, thirty years after the historic sit-ins, the street just to the south of where Woolworth’s stood was renamed ‘February One Place’ to commemorate the event. The store is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which still features the lunch counter minus four seats given to the Smithsonian Institution in 1993.

Nineteen years later, in 2002, the ‘February One monument’ depicting the ‘Greensboro Four’, was erected on North Carolina A&T’s campus.