February 1 marks the start of African American History Month in the United States. It was also on this date, in 1960, when four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College entered a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, South Carolina, sat down at the counter, and ordered a cup of coffee. The counter staff refused them service, noting it was a “Whites Only” counter, and the store manager asked them to leave.
Woolworth’s, the venerable five-and-dime store that became synonymous with Main Street USA (and later High Street UK) was founded in 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By the mid-twentieth century, most Woolworth’s stores included a lunch counter, which served typical diner fare and became a destination for casual shoppers and a meeting place among friends.
In the early 1960s in the United States, it was still legal for businesses to refuse service to customers based on the color of their skin, despite a 1954 Supreme Court case that ended racial segregation in public schools.
The four men who ordered coffee that day – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair, Jr. – stayed sitting at the counter until the store closed. The next morning, the Greensboro Four invited twenty-five more students from North Carolina A&T College, and were again refused service at the Woolworth’s counter. They stayed all day, facing heckling and jeers from white customers who refused to sit at the counter with the students (according to the original caption to the photo above, the woman on the left came in for lunch but decided not to sit down).
On February 3, nearly 60 people came to the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro to participate in the sit-in, and by the fifth day the number had reached over 300. Facing a public relations nightmare, Woolworth’s agreed to discuss changes to the chain’s segregation policies, but few revisions were made. When the non-violent protest resumed, the city quickly passed new, more stringent segregation laws that allowed them to arrest forty-five of the student protesters – charging them with trespassing. Outraged by the arrests, the students organized a massive boycott of all segregated lunch counters.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with corporate change, it was the bottom line sales numbers that led to change, rather than a desire on the company’s part to do the right thing. The protests led to an over 33% drop in sales at Woolworth’s, forcing the company to drop it’s segregation policies. Six months from the first sit-in, the Greensboro Four returned to the Woolworth’s lunch counter and were served.
Today, the Greensboro Woolworth’s Sit-In is recognized as a watershed event in the American Civil Rights movement on par with Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The Woolworth’s chain closed in the United States in 1997, and the Greensboro store is now home to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. A portion of the Woolworth’s lunch counter was removed and preserved by the Smithsonian Institution, and is on display at the National Museum of American History.
So when you’re having your cup of coffee this week, take a moment to remember the Greensboro sit-in.