It was two or three days after the first Woolworth’s sit-in staged by four N.C. A&T freshmen in Greensboro that four High Point high school students sat talking about this historic event with two adults, the Rev. B. Elton Cox and Miriam Fountain, a retired teacher.
Many questions were bandied about: How to do it? Where did the courage come from? When was the decision made? What would be the consequences or outcomes? Why were they the chosen ones?
These four students, 14 to 16 years old, spurred on by the courage of the “Greensboro Four,” decided to do the same thing in High Point. They were Brenda Jean Fountain, Miriam Lynn Fountain, Andrew Dennis McBride and me.
Rev. Cox, who later would become a Freedom Rider, was asked to lead the effort and agreed, after some persuasion on our part. The next two people on board were Arlene Wilkins and Peter Mason. From there, a full recruitment of students ensued.
We had lots of students show up at Rev. Cox’s Pilgrim Congregational Church, but not all were willing to follow the nonviolent doctrine of Mahatma Gandhi, which Martin Luther King Jr. strongly practiced and advocated. As students were quizzed, challenged and weeded out, the number dwindled to 26. The work began in earnest with lectures, role-playing, safety measures (i.e., girls on the inside during marches) and general nonretaliatory behavior. After our daily preparations, the targeted day arrived: Feb. 11, 1960.
As the school day ended, 24 students from William Penn High and two from High Point High School met at the Fourth Street YMCA/YWCA (presently New Beginnings Full Gospel Ministry) for last-minute briefings and prayers. Snow from a recent storm was still piled on the sides of streets.
At approximately 4 p.m., the 26 students, led by Rev. Cox and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, began the march to Woolworth’s downtown. We entered from the rear, Wrenn Street entrance at about 4:10 and split into small groups pretending to shop while waiting for the signal from Rev. Cox (he would doff his hat) to make a break for the lunch counter and occupy the seats. A few seats were empty; others were quickly vacated except for one, where a man continued eating while listening to a transistor radio. Rufus Newlin recalls that the song on the radio was, “What in the World’s Come Over You.” What irony!
We made our move. With all seats occupied, some of the students began to study or do homework. Education was always first! This was preached by parents, school and Rev. Cox. If grades suffered, the student suffered (i.e., no extracurricular activities) until the grades were much improved. This especially applied to the athlete. The schools didn’t have to do it, the parents did it — no exceptions, no excuses. Participation in the sit-in movement was included in this practice.
A waitress immediately asked us to leave and told us we would not be served. We refused. Next the manager told us to leave and called the police when we did not. By now a crowd of whites had gathered and the mood grew ugly. Attempts to strike, kick, push or pull students began, while the hate-filled crowd yelled racial slurs. Police looked on. The CLOSED sign now appeared on the lunch counter.
We felt more fearful as the crowd became more like a mob, but we remained calm and, most importantly, nonviolent.
The lights in the store were turned out and an announcement was made that the store had closed. We raised a cheer as we prepared to leave, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Amid the verbal ugliness from the crowd, now outside, we walked with heads high, filled with a sense of accomplishment and some fear. Even as we were followed to Washington Street, in the black neighborhood, by some of that ugly crowd, being pelted by snowballs along the way, the sense of fear began to lessen.
Back at the Y on Fourth Street, the excitement erupted among us. Hugs, tears and admissions of fear were shared. We made a vow to return the next day.
When we did, we found the lunch counter seats roped off, so we stood behind them and sang. After a time, we left — only to return over and over and over again.
This movement extended to other High Point stores, movie theaters, fast-food restaurants, churches and City Lake Park. It continued for eight years, at which time the Human Relations Commission was formed of black and white citizens.
Yes, progress has been made in High Point, is still being made and must continue to be made in our city. The civil rights movement is a very important part of High Point’s history. I dare say it played a key role in helping to improve race relations.
Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney is a retired registered nurse and city and county volunteer. In November, she was elected to an at-large seat on the High Point City Council.