On February 1, 1960, at a lunch counter in an F. W. Woolworth department store, four African American students from the nearby North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College—Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond—walked into the five-and-dime, sat down, and ordered coffee. Because they had sat at the “Whites Only” counter, the store’s employees refused to serve them. Clarence Harris, the manager, asked them to leave.
In an era undergirded by racist Jim Crow provisions, the trope of white business owners refusing black patrons even the most basic of services wasn’t uncommon. But the Greensboro Four remained seated, waited out the afternoon, and left only once the store closed that evening.
Almost overnight, the counter became the cultural flashpoint for a nationwide debate on white supremacy and equal rights.
The next day, the original Four had multiplied and more than 20 students filed into the eatery. Like the day prior, the staff denied them service. White patrons heckled and harrassed the students, who stood steadfast yet. The protesters brought books and school materials to keep themselves occupied. Woolworth adhered to company policy and refused to serve the black customers.
By the fourth day, more than 300 people had joined in to protest, with some filing into another nearby lunch counter. The events in Greensboro sparked a movement; soon, black Americans were organizing sit-ins across the American South in cities like Richmond, Virginia, Nashville, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi. Many were met with violence. Hundreds were arrested.
On July 25, 1960, more than six months after the initial sit-in, the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro was officially desegregated. After their shift, four of Harris' black employees—Charles Bess, Mattie Long, Susie Morrison, and Jamie Robinson—changed out of their work clothes and were served food at the counter.
Years later, in 1993, Bill Yeingst would be at home making dinner when he'd hear the news: The Woolworth Corporation planned to close a number of their department stores across the country. His attention was piqued. The next day at work, Yeingst phoned the company; he wanted to know if the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina would be closing, and if so, what would happen to the lunch counter on the ground-floor cafe.
As Bill Yeingst was then the museum specialist at The National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, he wanted to bring the counter to the halls of the museum—and to the capitol.
“I have a long interest in trying to strengthen our material around African American history and culture,” he told me over the phone. “But more specifically the role of young Americans in bringing about social, cultural, and political change in American life.” The Greensboro lunch counter, what with its charged history as an icon of the civil rights movement, fit the bill.
“We look for objects that hold multiple layers of meaning,” said Yeingst, who is currently the chair and supervisory curator of the Division of Home and Community Life. “This particular one really spoke to me on a number of levels. Of course, it was one of the great icons of the modern civil rights movement, yet it was also a lunch counter where people in a small southern town gathered and shared stories of everyday life—if you were a white American.”
The National Museum of American History is a massive testament to the country’s history, a compendium of American narratives all told through objects. The artifacts span the spectrum of cultural, political, social, and historical: Inside the walls of the institution are Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, an early model of an Apple Macintosh mouse. Yeingst knew that this seminal symbol of the civil rights movement deserved a place in the museum’s halls.
“To make something like this happen takes considerable effort on the part of a lot of people,” he said. Before he could access the counter, or even part of it, Yeingst was referred to a local Greensboro-based group that sought to preserve the memory of the sit-in and the movement it spurred. “It's a substantial effort not only in the museum, but also in negotiating with the corporate officials as well as the community in Greensboro. We absolutely wanted them to feel that they were a part of this; we didn't want to come in and rob a community of their treasured object.”
The lunch counter ran the entire length of the store, but Yeingst and his fellow curators only requested a portion.
After negotiations and meetings with local officials, they decided to keep the majority of the scene intact. The historic five-and-dime is now the site of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and, with assistance from the local carpenters union, they were able to disassemble a piece of the counter and transport it to Washington, DC. The curators installed the counter and the four stools on the museum’s second floor, in view of the Star-Spangled Banner.
When I asked Yeingst about whether or not these are the stools that the original Greensboro four (two of which are still living) sat on when they first protested, he responded simply, “It's hard to say which are the original four, but in some ways, that really doesn’t matter.”
Today, the counter stands resolute, on prominent display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Rarely does it leave or move. Its lacquered surface holds decades of history, progress actualized and promises unkept.
Christopher Wilson, the Director of Experience and Program Design and the Director of the Program in African-American History and Culture, sees it as his mission to preserve the legacy of the Greensboro lunch counter, as well as to usher it into a new era. Regularly, he organizes performances that use the counter as its focal point. He stages reenactments on the anniversary of the sit-in and encourages visitors to take part in nonviolent direct action training. For Wilson, the inciting sit-in is important not just for the immense bravery it required, but for the massive reverberations it portended as well.
Last year, the lunch counter anchored an exhibition on American democracy and petitioning. In so many ways, it’s the perfect representation of democracy’s ability, its inherent necessity, to exist outside of the ballot box.
“We could've just told the story of what took place on February 1, 1960,” Wilson said. “But what we thought was even more important was to share what happened on February 15, 1960 and February 28, 1960 and on, and to make the point that this movement succeeded not only because of those original forerunners in the civil rights movement—the Greensboro Fours, the Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Riders—but also because of the commitment of everyone who continued the movement across the country and stood in for the people who were arrested.”
Without the context of the Woolworth’s store to ground the counter, it could be easy to chalk the artifact up to a sliver of wood and plastic and four aluminum stools. But, as Wilson points out, there’s a sense of imagination, something transportive, that the exhibition can conjure.
"It wasn’t just that people wanted their cup of coffee from Woolworth or wanted to ride this bus; it was the entire system of white supremacy these places represented," Wilson said. Concrete objects like the counter are physical manifestations of culture and history, all of the systemic injustices that people like the Greensboro Four fought to dismantle.
"As curators, we have the incredible power and responsibility to decide what's valued, whose stories should be remembered and preserved. In effect, the museum helps shape and preserve our national memory," said Yeingst. "It’s really about forming a more accurate representation of the past, because without objects like the lunch counter from Greensboro, we’re only telling part of the story."
Today, July 25, is the anniversary of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter's desegregation, thanks to the nonviolent commitment of those hundreds of students, civil rights activists, and the Greensboro Four.
On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.Listen Now