Sit-in Corner: July 1960

From John Hennessy:

W.T. Grants, corner of Caroline and William. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

It is likely the place most powerfully associated with the Civil Rights movement in Fredericksburg: the intersection of Caroline and William, at the very heart of downtown. In 1960–long before outlying strip malls rendered downtowns historical curiosities–this corner was the virtual center of commerce and shopping for the Fredericksburg region. Four prominent business sat on the four corners here, three of them major national chains. Department store Woolworths stood on the northeast corner, where R&R Antiques now stands. Across William, on the SE corner, was W.T. Grants (in the old Ben Franklin), a direct competitor to Woolworths both locally and on the national stage. Across Caroline from Grant’s (today it is the antique store next to Crown Jewelers) stood People’s Drug Store, then perhaps the most prominent chain drugstore in Virginia. Local Drugstore Bonds stood on the NW corner.

All three of the national chains had something in common: they all served food at in-store lunch counters. These counters would become a non-violent battleground in the struggle for civil rights.

Much was happening elsewhere that summer of 1860. At North Carolina A&T, students had started sit-in protests at lunch counters in Greensboro, and shortly thereafter enthusiasm for similar protests emerged in Fredericksburg. Problem was, Fredericksburg had no college or university that permitted African-American students, and so the lot fell to high school students to mount the challenge.

Woolworths. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

Local dentist Phillip Wyatt (president of the local NAACP chapter) and community activists Gladys Poles Todd and Mamie Scott worked with the students to organize the protests. They drilled in methods of non-violent protest, preparing for the resistance that would inevitably come. They dressed neatly. They learned not to touch merchandise–lest they be accused of theft. They organized shifts  committed to–by their simple presence–closing the lunch counters in the three chain stores on a rotating basis.

On July 1, 19060, the protests began when eight students walked into Woolworth’s at 1 p.m.  They took their seats silently–some of them reading books–and did not order. Staff quickly put out signs, “This Section Closed.”  For an hour the students rotated between the three stores. As soon as the students left, staff reopened the counters to white customers. And so it would go.  The Free Lance-Star reported that “Police observed the afternoon demonstrations but indicated they contemplated no arrests unless a trespass complaint was filed by a store.”

The sit-ins required extraordinary effort on the part of the students. Most of them lived in the Mayfield section of Fredericksburg and could get downtown only by walking. Every day. In the clutches of summer.

But resistance came in many forms.  Managers of the three stores asserted that they would continue to operate the lunch counters “in accordance with local customs”–that is, that only white customers would be served. When protesters arrived, white customers on occasion rushed to claim the seats, disrupting the protest.  On July 7, protesters arrived at Grant’s to find packaged blankets occupying the seats at the lunch counters. Abiding by their training not to touch merchandise, they did not take seats. Instead, staff removed pillows whenever white customers approached, as apparently several did, then promptly replaced the pillows.  Store manager Elliott Middleton explained that Grants was having a sale on blankets that extended to “every department” in the store, including, apparently, the lunch counter.

People’s drugstore is in the distance in this view of Caroline Street taken in the 1940s. By 1960, Woolworth’s, seen at left, had moved to its location at the intersection. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

Still, the protests continued throughout July.  The protesters quickly discovered that they need occupy only every third seat to close down a counter (a bit of strategem that allowed the twenty or so protesters to extend their reach), since, as protester Gaye Adegbelola remembered, “if someone white wanted to sit down they would have to sit down by someone black, and nobody white wanted to do that.”

The site of Woolworth’s today.

The protesters also urged a broader boycott of the offending stores, and so walking a picket line became part of the daily toil.. Ms. Adegbelola remembered that sympathetic white residents honored the boycott, but some reacted angrily. She recalled being surrounded in front of Grants, all the while reciting the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in her mind. She also remembered another incident, when a crowed gathered outside People’s.  “It was late one evening and crowds gathered outside of People‘s and they yelled, ―Come out coons, come out coons.  They had Confederate Flags. To this day, that is part of why I abhor Confederate flags.”

A breakthrough came on the thirtieth day, when Grant’s and Woolworth’s quietly put out word the their lunch counters would be desegregated on July 30 at 4 p.m. At that hour, at the stores’ invitation, four African-Americans sat dawn to served in Woolworths and three in Grants.  V.R. Cutts, the manager at Woolworth’s explained, “We are pleased and feel it is now appropriate to announce the operation of the food department on a desegregated basis.”  Middleton, the manager at Grant’s, said simply, “they will be served.”

People’s Drugs–which was clearly the most reactionary of all the local businesses–continued to resist, and indeed it would be months before the counter at People’s accepted anyone other than white customers.

In 1960, this building housed People’s Drugs–the most resistant of Fredericksburg’s national chains.

But the seed of change had been planted–in just four weeks a bunch of high school kids overturned a policy that had been present in some form in Fredericksburg for centuries.  Other public places like local theaters…and eventually schools…soon desegregated as well. It was an astonishingly swift change wrought by a small group of young people determined to see justice.

The W.T. Grant building today.


6 thoughts on “Sit-in Corner: July 1960

    • Kenneth–please contact me. I am working on an African American History Presentation honoring one of the protesting students–I need to speak to someone who might have more information and/or photos.
      Michele Phillips, Hugh Mercer Elementary School, 540-371-1115

    • I too was one of the participants, along with my recently deceased sister, Ellen Rosetta Noel. That is me in the 1st seat on the plaque, and her on the 2nd seat. John Vann Noel, sr. 302-602-0929

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