On a Sunday in 1960, nine high school students stopped by Colonial Drug Store on Franklin Street for some food. They were refused service, then escorted out by police.
At the time, Chapel Hill was a segregated town. The high schoolers were black, and Colonial Drug only served meals to white customers.
The teenagers, who became known as the Chapel Hill Nine, made waves, inspiring a decade of civil disobedience in the town.
On Thursday evening, on the 59th anniversary of the sit-in, the town commemorated the moment that some say brought the civil rights movement to Chapel Hill.
“I’m so glad the town has finally started to honor the real heroes of the community, who made an impact on what some call the Southern Part of Heaven,” said the Rev. Norris Trice.
Outside what is now the West End Wine Bar, the surviving members of the Chapel Hill Nine stood as community leaders spoke. For some of them, it was their first time back since the day they were arrested.
In front of them, a crowd of more than 100 people flowed from the sidewalk onto Franklin Street to witness the commemoration. The site will soon display a marker honoring the Chapel Hill Nine.
On Thursday a makeshift podium was adorned with a quilt featuring a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
“Even as a newcomer to this town, I realize that I stand on your shoulders, and for that I am eternally grateful,” Town Manager Maurice Jones told the Chapel Hill Nine.
Speakers included town government leaders, members of the Chapel Hill Historic Civil Rights Task Force and alumni of Lincoln High School, which the Chapel Hill Nine attended.
“Chapel Hill is a better place because of what the Chapel Hill Nine did,” said former Mayor Ken Broun, chair of the task force. “Their courage and the example they set is a lesson to all of us: We can learn from and follow the young and the courageous.”
Current Mayor Pam Hemminger said the struggle for fairness that the Chapel Hill Nine fought for continues today.
“We love our Chapel Hill Nine and the gift they gave to our community by standing up for what is right,” she said. “I want everyone to always remember to stand up for what is right, to make sure that everyone feels welcome in this community.”
A permanent marker is scheduled to be installed next year. As a symbolic measure, Hemminger, surviving Chapel Hill Nine members and family members of the deceased laid rocks on the sidewalk where the marker will be placed.
To the roars of “We Shall Overcome,” members of the alumni association at Lincoln High School then led a march around the block to First Baptist Church.
The 1960s in Chapel Hill
Four of the Chapel Hill Nine are still alive: Albert Williams, Dave Mason Jr., Jim Merritt and Clyde Perry. Now in their 70s, the four stood side by side in suit and tie Thursday.
At the time of their sit-in, six years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools in Chapel Hill were still years away from desegregation. In 1966, Lincoln closed down upon full integration of the town’s schools, though decades later, the alumni network remains strong.
Eugene Hines, who attended Lincoln from 1961 to 1963, recalled the black community’s complicated relationship with Colonial Drug Store owner “Big John” Carswell, who allowed black kids to buy ice cream.
“Within this two-block radius, there were five black churches, so after church all of us kids would come down and purchase ice cream from the drug store,” Hines said. “But Big John would not let us sit at the lunch counter.”
However, Hines pointed out the irony of Carswell’s stance since Carswell would also let Hines’ mother and other black families buy medicine on credit if they were struggling financially.
Lincoln High School merged with Chapel Hill High School in 1966. A few years later, it was able to regain a sliver of its identity when the student body voted to change the school mascot to Lincoln’s old mascot, the Tigers.
“The school spirit was very contagious,” Trice said. “They weren’t just the Tigers from Lincoln High School, they were the Mighty Fighting Tigers from Lincoln High School. The way these men carried themselves made you want to be a part of their winning legacy.”