Counter history: Greensboro museum honors sit-in that changed America

Travel EditorFebruary 23, 2013 

  • Separate, not equal

    The International Civil Rights Center & Museum, 134 S. Elm St., Greensboro, is open for guided tours 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays; longer hours April-September. Admission: $10; $8 for 65 and older and students; $6 for ages 6-12; 5 and younger, free. Details: 800-748-7116;

One of the key battles to desegregate the South played out at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960.

Reason: Lunch was not served.

Woolworth was a national retailer, and corporate policy allowed for managers to adjust for local custom. In the South, that meant blacks could shop at the “five and dime” but not dine there.

Segregation was the law of the land when four black college students sat down to order coffee at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro.

They would not leave when refused service, and returned to the whites-only counter every day until it was formally desegregated almost six months later.

The Greensboro incident jump-started a decade of major civil rights struggles and legislation that changed the nation.

The Woolworth chain died in 1997, but its iconic red-and-gold sign still hangs above the old dime store: Two years ago, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum was created in the building on South Elm Street at the corner of what is now named February One Place.

The pink and green counter stools are still there, roped off, just inside the exhibit area’s doors. The starkly unadorned and darkened chamber, and the original counter – minus a section acquired by the Smithsonian – sets the stage for a 40-minute guided tour through a troubled past.

The story of how Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond challenged the racial status quo is told through the lunch counter itself: Recessed overhead lights dim, then five mirrors behind the counter turn into screens to show images of actors re-enacting the story.

On the screens you see the backs of waitresses as they move along the counter. The four students, though unserved, stay put. When the narrative jumps to the following days, the scene isn’t much changed though it is increasingly charged with emotion and more activists are involved.

For July 25, 1960, you see black Woolworth employees, asked by their white manager to change into their street clothes, sitting at the counter. It’s a dress rehearsal for full integration the following day.

What makes the presentation compelling is seeing history unfold from two perspectives. Looking at the counter, you’re where the public might’ve stood and watched. Looking into the mirrors, you see the swirl of events through the eyes of, say, a fry cook or soda jerk.

An interactive table off to the side helps show the sit-in’s immediate impact. The Greensboro Four were freshmen at N.C. A&T; their ranks were joined by students from there and Greensboro’s historically black Bennett College.

The table reveals a map showing locations of spin-off demonstrations across the South, many launched by students from predominantly black colleges and universities. Touch a city on the map and the tabletop shows news clippings whose screaming headlines followed developments across Dixie.

The mirror re-enactment at the counter could be easily watched several times; the interactive table could eat a half-hour. Unfortunately, guided tours have to move along. The smaller your group, the longer you can linger.

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