GREENSBORO — Feb. 1, 1960, could have been any other day at the downtown F.W. Woolworth store, which nearly led the national chain in sales in the South and served 2,000 meals daily at its lunch counter.
That all changed at 4 p.m., when four black N.C. A&T freshmen sat down on stools at the Formica counter.
They were: Joseph McNeil, the Socrates- and Langston Hughes-quoting quiet guy; Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.), the Boy Scout with a sense of the dramatic; the late David Richmond, a popular four-letter high school athlete; and the late Franklin McCain, the tall, lanky one with nerves of steel.
Trying to order, the four young men would kick off a movement across the South.
Both supporters and hecklers would converge on the downtown dime store as the crowds got bigger each day.
It would take until July 25 — six months later — when African-Americans were finally served at Woolworth and other restaurants in downtown Greensboro.
“I have a lot of reverence for July 25,” McCain would say later, “because it represents the courage, the faith and the sacrifice of a lot of people.”
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum observes the 57th anniversary of that day Tuesday.
Here are some moments that tell how we got to that day.
The secret of life is knowing when to take on something difficult and to take something on that might have enormous risks and implications. — Joseph McNeil, before the opening of the civil rights museum in 2010
The ‘59 Ford convertible
The A&T four were honor students who had been taught the Bill of Rights and Constitution since grade school and wanted to put them to the test. People like James McAdoo, in his green ’59 Ford Galaxie convertible trimmed in white, fortified their actions.
With McAdoo at the wheel, the car rumbled back and forth between the A&T campus and Woolworth’s department store in the winter of 1960, picking up and dropping off students.
Richmond had asked him to help keep the chairs filled.
“I knew I couldn’t get arrested because I had a job to do,’’ said McAdoo, who had served in the U.S. Marines and was then a 25-year-old college senior. “I had to get the people there. When the police tried to make an arrest, I’d move back in the crowd.’’
McAdoo didn’t pay much attention to then-A&T Chancellor Samuel Proctor. Proctor warned students they had to attend their classes or fail, and he discouraged them from going downtown. One of McAdoo’s teachers pulled him to the side after a 9 a.m. French class.
“She said, ‘They see you getting in your car. If you don’t come to class, I’m going to have to flunk you.’ ”
Soon, he wasn’t even attending his afternoon class on a regular basis.
“We were marching good in the evening and I just couldn’t leave,’’ McAdoo said in 2003 before receiving an “Unsung Hero” award during a museum gala. “And they flunked me.’’
He would later end up with two degrees.
The by-the-book manager was in an upper kitchen when a waitress first told him that, despite black people not being allowed to eat at the counter, four of them had sat down and asked for coffee and pie.
Clarence L. “Curly” Harris told her to ignore them.
Harris’ journal of sorts provides a view from the other side of the lunch counter on that day and in the months that followed.
At the time, and for years afterward, Harris declined to be interviewed. But he recounted his view of the events in his papers to the nonprofit Sit-In Movement in 1994, which was then working to make the museum a reality.
It includes a letter he wrote to then-Gov. Luther Hodges.
“Actually,” Harris wrote, “we are fighting a battle for all the white people who still want to eat with white people.”
But in his personal recollections, Harris seemed more conflicted. He thought he was being made out to be a bad guy, according to his papers.
Three years before the sit-ins, Harris had removed the “white only” and “colored only” signs from the restrooms and water fountains in Woolworth. They wouldn’t disappear from public and government buildings until long after civil rights laws passed in 1964.
“Black employment in Greensboro in 1960 was only slightly evident anywhere,” wrote Harris, but black employees made up 30 percent of the workers at his store.
Harris wondered why his business was being singled out, when all city restaurants he knew of were segregated — and not one of the black college presidents nor Waldo Falkener, the lone black city councilman, could eat at any of them.
The sit-in was noticeably affecting the store’s bottom line.
Food service was virtually at a standstill, except for the stand-up service, takeout and the bakery.
The high school students
While college students had carried the sit-ins for months, when they went home for summer break, the responsibility rested on local high school students, whose connection to the moment that changed America is often overlooked.
At Dudley, they had been mentored by a principal and teachers who refused to let segregation rob them of their self-esteem or devalue their abilities.
Outside lurked the indignities of second-class citizenship.
When the college students left, the chief strategist of the ongoing demonstrations downtown was 17-year-old Bill Thomas, a rising senior at Dudley.
He was a deep thinker who had taken seriously the promise to the A&T students that they would not let up on the pressure.
Thomas was also able to negotiate with civic leaders while being able to call on local clergy and adults affiliated with other civil rights groups for advice. He often met on the porch of his family’s modest home with Greensboro Police Capt. William Jackson, a polite man who could set the tone as to how officers would respond to demonstrators. Jackson’s goal was to keep everyone safe.
“If he said to Capt. Jackson there would be 1,000 people downtown the next day, there were 1,000 people downtown the next day,” said Anthanette Thomas Clark of her brother, who later served as the Greensboro youth president of the NAACP and was a lawyer before his death in 2005.
In the 1960s, when college students demonstrated against segregated restaurants, black churches were often their staging area.
The student movement to integrate the city emanated from the sanctuaries of churches like Shiloh, St. James, Providence and Institutional Baptist.
“The children went out and made powerful stands and statements, but it was rooted in what they heard at church: ‘If you are in the fiery furnace, God will meet you there,’ ’’ the Rev. Nelson Johnson, pastor of Faith Community Church, said. “That forced everyone to rise up.’’
Among the many local pastors who took a special interest in the Woolworth demonstrations was the late Rev. Otis Hairston Sr., a calming influence who had taken over the leadership of Shiloh from his father by 1960, right before the sit-ins began.
Khazan, one of the four A&T freshmen, had grown up in Shiloh Baptist. Hairston opened his office to the students for strategy sessions.
Civic leaders recognized the reach of clergy in the movement.
“There were people who wanted to be destructive,” the late Carson Bain, who served as mayor during the late 1960s, once said. “(Hairston) kept a lot of things from happening that even I couldn’t as mayor.’’
Nearing the end of summer, Harris invited the Human Relations Commission to a private meeting after the store closed. Earlier during the sit-in, the commission had tried to negotiate the integration of the counter. At that time, Harris said, “No.”
At that later private meeting, Harris wanted it to be over.
Harris asked businessman Edward Zane, the head of the commission, to ask him again whether Woolworth would integrate.
”Ask and see what happens,” Harris told Zane.
Geneva Tisdale and a couple of other black employees had been asked to bring their Sunday best to work the next day.
At 2 p.m. on July 25, with few people in the store, the employees changed clothes, sat at the counter and ordered from the menu.
The company, ceding to months of protests and lost revenue, wanted some control over the situation.
Harris had chosen the date and wanted his black employees to be the first African-Americans served there.
Tisdale climbed atop a seat at the counter and nervously ate the egg sandwich she ordered, wishing she could gobble it down more quickly so she could get back to work behind the counter.
She didn’t want her front-row seat to history. Day in and day out, there had been demonstrations in front of the store protesting the Jim Crow laws.
“I was trying to get up from there before anything happened,” Tisdale said a few years ago.
The four freshman who kicked off the movement had no particular desire to eat there. They just wanted black people to have the choice.
McCain, tipped off to what was to take place, used $200 from his summer job to fly from northern Virginia back to Greensboro that day.
“I passed there a couple of times to see black folks eating,” he said before his death in 2014. “It was a day of confirmation more than anything else. We knew it would happen. We just didn’t know when.”