Standing an Woolworth's lunch counter where history was made ... that's a real moment

Feb. 03, 2013 @ 10:06 AM

Standing behind the lunch counter at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro last Thursday was surreal. It's a moment I don't want to forget.

The museum is the former F.W. Woolworth retail store where 53 years ago Friday, (Feb. 1,1960) four freshman men from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now N.C. A&T State University) sat down at the retail stores's "white only" lunch counter and asked for a cup of coffee — challenging the institution of segregation.

They were denied coffee and asked to leave. They did not leave.  

Their actions ignited similar nonviolent protests that spread throughout North Carolina and the south from that day forward.

The former retail store was open as a museum just two years ago, after it nearly became a downtown parking lot. But two elected officials had a dream to transform the civil rights landmark into a museum and it opened 50 years to the day of the lunch counter sit-in.

The original counter and the stools are the centerpiece of the museum that also includes the stories of other key human and civil rights leaders and their struggles.

I toured the museum with family members, including an aunt who was a student at Greensboro Women's College (now UNC-G) that day.

She talked about the times she rode the bus from the campus to downtown to have a hot dog at Woolworth and the aftermath of Feb. 1, 1960, as the four students sat down for coffee.

That day was filled with uncertainly and some fright, not knowing what might happen, she said.

There was a lock down on her campus and students were told to stay away from downtown. Many stayed on campus, but others bravely joined the nonviolent protest and stood beside and stood up for the four men.

Days and months later, students from across Greensboro, the state and nation made their way to Woolworth's to show support for AT&T students. They participated in the sit-in.

Newspapers lining the museum tell the story of the day and its aftermath.

On the walls in front of the counter are enormous copies of the Greensboro News & Record, as reporters told the story that make history and eventually changed the south.  Newspapers line other walls with the story that today, almost seems, unthinkable and unreal.

While the news spread across the south, other similar nonviolent protests were occurring, and newspapers recorded the events.

I was in the second grade the day of the Woolworth sit-in and it took many years later before, the challenges of segregation reached Rutherford County, and  there was change.

Standing behind the lunch counter where the four brave students asked for a cup of coffee and were refused, I  felt shame and yet so much awe for the students.  I'm so proud of the two elected officials who stood up to keep the building in tact rather than a parking lot so folks like you and I can visit the museum and remember how it was and reflect on the bravery of the young students, probably 18 or 19 years old.

There's a guest register at the museum for visitor comments. I wrote how I felt embarassed and ashamed that I had grown up in the Jim Crow South where right here in Rutherford County "whites only" were offered privileges others were not.

And yet, I also felt so proud of the Greensboro Four.

Just four days after they sat down at the lunch counter, hundreds of others joined them in support of the rights of human beings. From across the country, I learned Thursday, people traveled just to participate in the movement.

On July 25, 1960, Woolworth's began serving everyone at the lunch counter.

The museum trip was a history lesson, as I turned back the pages of a time I lived and of a time, when civil rights struggles impacted social change around the world.
This museum was a reminder, too, of some of America's greatest heroes.