It’s a simple act, sitting down and sharing food with another person. But in Durham, as in much of the American South, before 1960, according to local custom and a city ordinance, it was taboo and illegal for blacks to dine with whites in public. Black Durham activist John Edwards told a reporter for the New Yorker in 1961 that “if you had a job downtown and didn’t want to go way back over the tracks to the Negro section, the only warm food you could buy was hot dogs at a couple of places that’d let you stand up and eat them. You get awful sick of hot dogs.”
Nonetheless, blacks did have dining options in black-owned restaurants in Hayti, a storied black neighborhood in Durham. For example, the Donut Shop at 335 E. Pettigrew St., which advertised itself as the “The South’s Finest Eating Establishment,” served a full menu and had a banquet room called the Jade Room, which sat 100 people. Black business groups regularly dined there, like in 1946, when N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. executive Dan Martin hosted a group of the company’s clerks in the Jade Room.
Although most accounts of the sit-in movement start with the 1960 Greensboro protests, Durham was the site of an earlier sit-in. In June 1957, when the Rev. Douglas Moore, pastor of Asbury Temple Methodist church, and six young men and women challenged segregated seating at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor at the corner of Roxboro and Dowd streets. The seven black protesters were arrested, tried, and convicted of trespassing by an all-white jury.
Three years later, Durham again played a pivotal role in the movement to topple racial segregation. After sit-ins began on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, led by the inspired actions of four black college students from North Carolina A&T, Durham was the first city to join Greensboro in staging lunch counter sit-ins. Had Greensboro stood alone, its impact would have been muted, as was the case with the solitary 1957 protest at the Royal Ice Cream parlor.
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After North Carolina College (NCC) student Callis Brown heard about the first Greensboro sit-in on the evening television news, his reaction was immediate: “We ought to do that here,” in Durham. Brown phoned several college friends, who agreed with him. NCC student leaders also urged their counterparts at Shaw University in Raleigh to stage a sit-in in the state capital, which they did.
On Monday morning, Feb. 8, 1960, over 40 NCC students along with four Duke University students sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on Main Street in Durham. Eight days later, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Durham to lend his support to the growing sit-in movement. On a chilly Tuesday evening, Dr. King told an overflow crowd of 1,500 at White Rock Baptist Church: “Let us not fear going to jail. If officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights, we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South.”
Despite vicious opposition from white segregationists, black protesters and white allies bravely and resolutely continued the protests for months. In May 1960, Carolina Times editor Louis Austin declared, “The Negro youths are to be saluted for their courage, manhood and fortitude, from which they are daily growing morally stronger while the white youths who attack them are to be pitied for the lack of control and cowardice they have exhibited.” Finally, on Aug. 1, 1960, after six months of protests, the downtown Durham lunch counters integrated their seating.
This important victory spurred Durham’s civil rights activists to expand the movement. Over the next three years, activists challenged segregated movie theaters, restaurants, and hotels. In August 1962, four students, including Joycelyn McKissick and Guytana Horton, protested racial segregation at Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, and were arrested and sentenced to 30-day jail terms. In response, over 1,000 people staged a massive demonstration at Howard Johnson’s later that month. The protests reached a crescendo in May 1963, when over 4,000 demonstrators converged on Howard Johnson’s in the largest protest in Durham’s history, demanding the integration of all public facilities in the city. Meanwhile, Harvey Rape, the owner of Rape’s Cafeteria on Main Street in Durham, threatened to shoot any African American who stepped into his business.
With sporadic violence erupting between black protesters and white segregationists, newly elected mayor Wense Grabarek appointed a committee, which by the end of June 1963 had helped negotiate an end to segregation at over 50 Durham businesses. Even Rape’s Cafeteria agreed to admit black customers, but refused to permit black and white customers to dine at the same table. Nonetheless, the Durham protests and similar protests throughout the South spurred the federal government to action, leading to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned racial segregation in public facilities.
About the Museum
The Museum of Durham History uses stories about people, places and things to foster curiosity, encourage further inquiry, and promote an understanding of diverse perspectives about the Durham community and its history. The Museum’s home, the History Hub, at 500 W. Main St., is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no admission charge. For more information, see www.modh.org.