Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in remembered by those who witnessed history

International Civil Rights Center and Museum

(GREENSBORO, N.C.) — Sixty-two years ago, four Black college students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their actions that day reverberated across college towns in the South, becoming the catalyst for six months of sit-ins and demonstrations.

July 25, 2022 marked the 62nd anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in movement’s conclusion, when, after months of protests and public pressure, Woolworth’s — the store at the center of the demonstrations — formally desegregated.

A little more than six decades later, three participants shared their stories with ABC News, reflecting on the legacy of the movement, what got them involved, what kept them motivated and the message they’ve carried with them.

Charles Bess was 23 years old when he started working as a busboy at Woolworth’s in 1960. He was busing tables at the store that historic day when the Greensboro Four — North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil — sat at the counter.

On his cab ride home after work, Bess, now 85, said he told the driver, “Don’t you know that four guys from A&T walked in and then sit down at the counter, and they didn’t leave when the waitress told them that we didn’t serve colored folks here?”

To which the cab driver responded, “Talk to me, brother! I like what you’re saying.”

“And I told my sister about it. I told my brother-in-law about it,” Bess recounted. “I just wanted to tell everybody because that was the talk of Greensboro. It was the talk that put Greensboro on the map. I was really excited.”

Fearing he would lose his job, Bess said he never participated in a sit-in himself. However, he did attempt to sneak a note of support to the demonstrators (though it was ultimately intercepted by the store manager). The note read, “I am with you all the way.”

Among the demonstrators was Roslyn Smith, who picketed the store during the sit-ins. While attending Bennett College, a historically Black college for women in Greensboro, Smith and her peers decided to strategize how they could integrate Woolworth’s, where many of them shopped, she said.

The group formed a committee, making Smith the secretary and meeting every night on the upper level of the student union. Smith said that while managing her coursework and participating in the school’s choir while also working a job was difficult, putting their protest into action was a priority for everyone involved.

“We also experienced some extra adrenaline and knowing that we were going to participate in something that involved working for justice, some rights, some evidencing to other people, to our fellow sisters, to our parents to where we live, that we had to do something,” she said. “We were tired of spending our money and not being able to sit down and eat.”

College students were not the only participants in the sit-ins. While they were away on holiday break, local high schoolers would take over, including Brenda James, who was 15 years old at the time.

When the protests first began, high school students like James were restricted to marching outside of the Woolworth’s to avoid getting hurt, James said.

“They didn’t know what would happen; not even the A&T Four didn’t know what was going to happen during those demonstrations,” James said.

Her participation, however, would inspire her longstanding passion for knowledge and social justice. James went on to receive her undergraduate degree in education from North Carolina A&T. She taught elementary school for decades, sharing what she experienced during the sit-ins with her students.

“[The sit-ins] also gave me a thirst for knowledge and learning about my history, my history, world history, American history,” she said. “It gave me a thirst for helping people.”

James later earned her master’s in social work and continues to work with young people and community organizations to make “the world a better place for everybody,” she said.

Despite the progress that has been made in society, however, Smith emphasized that “the fight is not over,” citing ongoing political tensions on the national and local level.

“If we’re not careful as a people, we’re going to be fighting this battle for a long time. I have a great granddaughter that’s a year old, should be a year old on Saturday, and I don’t want her to have to fight the same battle that I was fighting in 1960,” she said.

“The [African symbolic] Sankofa Bird says if you don’t remember your past, you’re prone to repeat it. So, I think we need to understand from where we came up to now and then how do we move forward,” she added. “And it takes commitment, it takes understanding where we are and who you are, and what you can do. Everybody can’t do everything, but everybody can do something.”

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