From John Hennessy:
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.
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. Continue reading