1957 sit-in began a life of activism

Staff WriterFebruary 21, 2010 

  • Born: April 16, 1937

    Birthplace: Garysburg, N.C.

    Education: Concord School, Northampton County

    Career: Worked 42 years in the dining room at Granville Towers, a private dormitory in Chapel Hill

— A sharecropper's daughter who came to Durham seeking a better life, Virginia Lee Williams had no ambitions of becoming a civil rightspioneer.

She arrived in March 1956 with almost no money. But the enterprising 18-year-old, used to hard work shucking corn and picking cotton in the steamy summer heat of Eastern North Carolina, quickly landed a job in the kitchen of then-segregated Duke Hospital.

Williams found an affordable room at the Harriet Tubman YWCA for blacks, which served as a social hub in thecity's Hayti neighborhood.

She had been in Durham about a year when she and fellow Y resident Mary Clyburn and their friend Vivian Jones headed out one Sunday afternoon and passed a group of well-dressed young men. One of them invited the ladies to a meeting.

"So I asked him, 'What kind of meeting?'" recalls Williams, now 72. "And he said, 'A political meeting.' So we said, 'Yeah, we'll go to that.'"

The chance encounter led Williams and her friends to make history in a sit-in at the whites-only dining room at the Royal Ice Cream Co. parlor on June 23, 1957. It was among the first such protests.

Though it occurred nearly three years before four black college students challenged Jim Crow at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, the Durham sit-in is often overlooked in histories of the civil rights struggle.

For Williams, her arrest for "trespassing" at the ice cream shop led to more than a decade of activism on picket lines at segregated movie theaters, swimming pools, restaurants and drug stores. She retired in December after four decades serving college students at a Chapel Hill cafeteria, a job that has left her strong hands callused by countless trays of hot food.

Small and spry, Williams is active at St. Joseph's African Methodist Episcopal Church and likes to go to concerts at Hayti Heritage Center and the Carolina Theatre, a venue where she used to protest.

She often volunteers to talk to schoolchildren, providing a living link to a complex history of racial strife many Americans would rather forget. She spoke Saturday at the N.C. Museum of History.

Williams is the youngest of six children born to Wiley and Elizabeth Williams, descendants of slaves who worked the sandy loam of Northampton County. The family lived in a small house near the crossroads community of Seaboard.

They had plenty to eat, she said, and the white man who owned the land they farmed treated her father fairly. But it was a life of hard toil.

"When you grow up on a farm, you start working young," Williams said. "If you were too little to carry a big bag of cotton, you carried a little one. And as you got older, the bags got bigger."

Her father sometimes left the farm without explanation. It wasn't until she was older that she learned he had been attending secret meetings of the local branch of the NAACP. She remembers how angry and helpless he looked when the family heard on the radio about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old murdered in Mississippi.

Soon after graduating from her all-black country school, she left for Durham, where she had once visited on a field trip.

The Bull City had a reputation as a place where blacks willing to work in tobacco factories or cotton mills would have a shot at a decent life. Blacks owned thriving businesses in Hayti, a bustling neighborhood with its own churches, civic institutions and college.

But despite the city's advantages, racial segregation was rigidly enforced. The young men she met at theYWCA were part of a small group led by businessman David Stith. They were dissatisfied with the slow, incremental agenda for change championed by the NAACP.

At the group's meeting, Stith asked for volunteers to stage a sit-in at a local restaurant. They settled on Royal Ice Cream because the white-owned business was in the heart of a black neighborhood.

Blacks could enter through a back door and order ice cream, but they weren't allowed at the whites-only soda counter and booths. Blacks had to eat their ice cream in the rear parking lot.

A walk into history

Eight people, including Williams and her friends, immediately agreed to participate. She didn't put much thought into what might happen.

"I didn't want to be a leader," Williams said. "I wanted to follow people with good ideas."

On a hot Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks later, the group walked through Royal's back door and straight to the whites-only seating area. Some took stools at the counter, while Williams and her friends slid into a booth.

She never got the chance to order ice cream. The manager peeked out of the back and called the Durham police.

Four squad cars arrived with eight officers - pistols and billy clubs hanging from their belts. They told the protesters the manager wanted them to leave.

"They were very courteous and never handcuffed us," Williams remembers about the arrest. "When we got to the station, one of the officers said to me, 'If I was your daughter, I'd take you across my lap and spank you.'"

Without missing a beat, Williams replied: "If I were your daughter, I wouldn't be here for this."

The next day's editions of Durham's two newspapers had stories about the ice cream parlor protest on their front pages, but the event received little attention beyond the city. The News & Observer carried only a brief about the arrests two days later.

'The Royal Seven'

A black lawyer, William A. Marsh Jr., agreed to defend what would become known as "The Royal Seven." Despite his efforts to seek a delay, a judge scheduled their trial for Monday, less than a day after the sit-in.

Williams went to work that morning at the hospital as if nothing had happened, only to get a message that she had to go to court.

When she got there, the courtroom was already packed. Marsh entered pleas of not guilty, but Judge A.R. Wilson declared them guilty of trespassing and fined the defendants $10 each.

Lawyers appealed the case to Superior Court, where an all-white jury also found them guilty. Hearings before the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court yielded the same result.

Williams went on to participate in other protests in North Carolina and elsewhere. She was at the March on Washington in 1963 and heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. give his "I Have A Dream" speech.

Though she saw segregation end and the schools integrate, Williams also watched the decline of the vibrant black institutions in East Durham. The YWCA eventually closed, forcing her to find a new home. Much of the Hayti business district was bulldozed in the early 1970s as part of a federal "slum clearance" program, the black-owned land seized for the construction of the Durham Freeway.

Williams, who never married, is the last of the Royal Seven in North Carolina.

She lives in a public housing high-rise for senior citizens with a splendid sixth-floor view of the Durham Bulls ballpark, just across the freeway that sliced through her community. She likes to sit by the window during the summer to watch the post-game fireworks.

Her tiny, well-kept apartment is adorned with certificates and plaques honoring her contributions to the civil rights movement.

"She might not see herself as a leader, but she was in the middle of everything," said Thomas Stith, a former city council member and son of the civil rights leader.

The walls of Williams' room are lined with photos ofBarack Obama, whose presidential campaign she volunteered for. She gathered with old friends last year to watch TV as Obama took the oath of office.

"It was almost unreal," she said. "We just kept looking at each other and saying, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe?' We really did it."

michael.biesecker@newsobser.com or 919-829-4698

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