Fear, pride and Royal Ice Cream

Change began with sit-in

CorrespondentJanuary 19, 2010 

— Charles B. Leslie described himself as the one the police always managed to take away.

"It was a lot of fun," said Leslie, 62, of Durham, who was arrested about 10 times at civil right marches and protests in Durham during the 1960s.

Leslie was about 15 when he marched to Woolworth downtown and was arrested for the first time, he said. He never saw the inside of a jail cell, though. Police would take him to the station, then tell him to go home, he said.

"It brings back memories," he said, smiling.

Leslie was among about 40 people at St. Joseph's AME Church on Monday for the 23rd annual Durham Civil Rights Workers Reunion.

They talked of marches, meetings and the moments that pulled them into history. Some were N.C. Central University students struggling to balance protests and school work, and others were local children recruited from their front yards by neighborhood leaders. It was scary, they said, but exciting.

The annual civil rights meeting grew out of an attempt to reflect on the past and continue improving black people's quality of life, said Clemon Baines of Durham, who worked with Operation Breakthrough, an anti-poverty program in Durham, for 35 years.

But as they celebrated on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they also grieved for those who have died in recent years and the stories that they fear may die with them.

"It is a day that I rejoice and feel a deep sense of pride and hope," Baines said. "On the other hand, it is a difficult day for me. I have spent many, many years with very, very close people who have gone."

Virginia Williams, 72, was one of seven arrested in 1957 after storming into the segregated Royal Ice Cream at the intersection of Roxboro and Dowd streets. Protesters demanded to be served ice cream in the store instead of taking it to go and leaving by the back door.

The group started as eight, but one ran out the back door when the cops were called, she said.

The white officer who arrested Williams told her, "'If you were my daughter, I would take you across my lap and spank you,'" she said. "And I said, 'If I was your daughter, I wouldn't be here for this.'"

In November, 52 years after the Royal Ice Cream event, a historical marker was erected to note Durham's first civil rights sit-in. But to this day, Williams and the others don't know who was the mystery man who posted their bail that day, she said.

Charles and James Cameron, twin brothers from Durham, picketed the Howard Johnson on Chapel Hill Street, which wouldn't admit blacks, and the Carolina Theatre, which had segregated seating, in the 1960s.

"A lot of people were scared, but I was not scared," Charles Cameron said. "The freedom meant so much to us."

Cameron and others said they fear today's children may not appreciate the struggle that gave them equal access to schools, restaurants and hotels. They have to do more to get young people involved, he said.

"Because it is the children that are going to keep this thing up," he said.

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