While not the first sit-ins of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Greensboro sit-ins were an instrumental action, leading to increased national sentiment at a crucial period in US history. The primary event took place at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth store, now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
In August 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker organized a sit-in at the then-segregated Alexandria, Virginia library. In 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored sit-ins in Chicago, as they did in St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952. A 1958 sit-in in Wichita, Kansas also was successful.
On February 1, 1960,at 4:30pm four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina.The men, later known as the A&T Four or the Greensboro Four, went to Woolworth’s Store, bought toothpaste and other products from a desegregated counter at the store with no problems, and then were refused service from the segregated lunch counter, at the same store. Following store policy, the lunch counter staff refused to serve the African American men at the “whites only” counter and the store’s manager asked them to leave.
The next day, more than twenty African American students who had been recruited from other campus groups came to the store to join the sit-in. Students from Bennett College, a college for African American women in Greensboro, joined the protest. White customers heckled the black students, who read books and studied to keep busy. The lunch counter staff continued to refuse service.
Newspaper reporters and a TV videographer covered the second day of peaceful demonstrations and others in the community learned of the protests. On the third day, more than 60 people came to the Woolworth store. A statement issued by Woolworth national headquarters said the company would “abide by local custom” and maintain its segregated policy.
More than 300 people took part on the fourth day. Organizers agreed to spread the sit-in protests to include the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store.
As early as one week after the Greensboro sit-in had begun, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins. Demonstrations spread to towns near Greensboro, including Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte. Out-of-state towns like Lexington, Kentucky also saw protests.
The movement then spread to other Southern cities including Richmond, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee where the students of the Nashville Student Movement had been trained for a sit-in by civil rights activist James Lawson and had already started the process when Greensboro occurred. Although the majority of these protests were peaceful, there were instances where protests became violent. For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tensions rose between blacks and whites and fights broke out. Another city where sit-ins occurred was Jackson, Mississippi. Students from Tougaloo College staged a sit-in on May 28, 1963. The incident is recorded in the autobiography of one of the members in attendance, Anne Moody. Moody described the treatment of the whites who were at the counter when they sat down, as well as the formation of the mob in the store and how they managed to finally leave the store.
As the sit-ins continued, tensions grew in Greensboro and students began a far-reaching boycott of stores that had segregated lunch counters. Sales at the boycotted stores dropped by a third, leading the stores’ owners to abandon their segregation policies. Black employees of Greensboro’s Woolworth store were the first to be served at the store’s lunch counter. This event occurred on Monday, July 25, 1960. The entire Woolworth was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike, although Woolworth lunch counters in other Tennessee cities, such as Jackson, continued to be segregated until around 1965, despite many protests.
National Park Service
The F.W. Woolworth Building on South Elm Street (the Northeast Shopping Center) is part of the Downtown Greensboro Historic District. The building currently houses the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/nc1.htm
Freedom Struggle – Sitting for Justice: Woolworth’s Lunch Counter
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1863-1963 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1964-2016 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)