Shop's place in history noted

Precursor to Woolworth sit-in occurred at Royal Ice Cream in Durham

Staff writerNovember 29, 2009 

  • If you go

    What: Formal placement and unveiling for the Royal Ice Cream historic marker

    When: 3 p.m. today

    Where: 1000 N. Roxboro St.

    Note: Virginia Williams, one of the demonstrators, and a member of the Coletta family, who owned the Royal Ice Cream shop in 1957, are expected to attend.

    Information: Eddie Davis, 810-5012

Fifty-two years, five months and six days after the event, the Royal Ice Cream sit-in gets an official place in history today.

"It's been a long time coming," said Eddie Davis of Durham.

The place is on Roxboro Street, about 100 feet north of Dowd. It's the site of Durham's first civil rights sit-in, June 23, 1957 - a date largely ignored by the movement's conventional chroniclers.

R. Kelly Bryant Jr., retired N.C. Mutual Insurance manager and acknowledged authority on Durham's black history, has been challenging that convention for more than 10 years. "I made several attempts to have a [state] historical marker placed there," he said. "And each time it was turned down because, they claimed, it didn't have enough significance."

The marker reads: "Segregation protest at an ice cream parlor on this site, June 23, 1957, led to court case testing dual racial facilities."

The Durham sit-in came more than two and a half years before the Feb. 1, 1960, demonstration at a Greens boro Woolworth store, a milestone famed for sparking a wave of similar action across the South.

Duke University historian William Chafe, author of"Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom," argues that by 1960, "the ground was more ready for this kind of event to trigger a far-reaching movement."

By 1960, Southern resistance to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation ruling had made civil rights a nationally familiar issue. In 1957, that had yet to occur, and the Royal Ice Cream incident went unnoticed outside of Durham.

Seven demonstrators were arrested after taking seats in the ice cream parlor's "white only" section: Mary Clyburn, Claud Glenn, Jesse Gray, Vivian Jones, Virginia Williams, Melvin Willis and the Rev. Douglas Moore. Found guilty in Recorder's Court, the group appealed. They lost again in Superior Court and the state Supreme Court. Their lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. In the end, the defendants were fined a total of $433.25.

Davis, former president of the N.C. Association of Educators, read a newspaperstory about the demonstration's 50th anniversary and got in touch with Bryant.

"He's the guy that pushed," Bryant said. "He kept saying to me, 'Keep trying, don't give up.' So I started again."

By then, the committee had new members, and Bryant "found there was a different attitude."

Davis and John Schelp of Durham helped Bryant's politicking, and the marker won approval in December 2007.

It was actually unveiled six months later, for the sit-in's 51st anniversary, but since the spot where it was to go was at the time a construction site for Union Baptist Church's school building, the marker went back under wraps for 17 months more.

"It's been a long time,"Davis said. or 919-932-2004

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