Greensboro Four  (file)

Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.) (foreground, far left), joins Franklin McCain (second from left), Joseph McNeil (third from left) and David Richmond Jr., (far right) son of the late David L. Richmond during a roundtable discussion with students at Harrison Auditorium on the N.C. A&T campus in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday, February 1, 2012. On February 1, 1960, Khazan, David Richmond, McCain and McNeil, all N.C. A&T freshmen at the time, asked to be served at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Greensboro sparking sit-ins all over the segregated South. (Nelson Kepley, news-record)

This story was originally published Jan. 27, 1985.

This was one bull session that produced history instead of hot air.

It was about 3 in the morning, Feb. 1, 1960. The setting was Room 2128 in Scott Hall, a dormitory on the N.C. A&T State University campus.

First-year students David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and Joseph McNeil had spent that night, and many evenings before, complaining about what it was like being black in Greensboro and the South.

"We finally felt we were being hypocritical because we were doing the same thing that everyone else had done, nothing," says McCain, now an executive with Celanese Corp. in Charlotte. "Up to then, we were armchair activists."

They decided to go downtown that day and seek service at F.W. Woolworth's whites-only lunch counter.

And they did.

History remembers them as four brave young men, but seated at the counter 25 years ago, they were four frightened freshmen.

"I could feel my legs and hands trembling," recalls Blair, who now lives in New Bedford, Mass., and goes by the name Jibreel Khazan. "I was perspiring. I really had to go to the bathroom bad. You can't image what it was like, being 17, Afro-American, sitting in a position like that, expecting the worst."

They knew such audacity would shock Greensboro. But they had no idea the event would spark similar sit-ins at segregated lunch counters all over the South or become the subject of books or later cause the state of North Carolina to erect a commemorative historical marker in downtown Greensboro.

The sit-ins and related sidewalk demonstrations downtown lasted off and on for nearly six months. The movement came to involve hundreds of A&T and Bennett College students and a few sympathetic whites from UNCG, Greensboro College and Guilford College.

It was strictly a student event. Detractors were convinced the NAACP or Congress of Racial Equality were behind it, but in fact it was started by four teenagers. They targeted Woolworth because it was a well-known national chain and had a double standard. Outside Dixie, Woolworth lunch counters were integrated.

Two of the four students, Richmond and Blair, were graduates of Greensboro's Dudley High School. McCain went to Dudley a year before his family moved to the Washington, D.C., area. McNeil was from Wilmington. They were serious students but not political radicals. They were simply tired of Southern "customs" and "landmarks" and second-class citizenship.

In Greensboro, public buildings had separate water fountains for blacks. The downtown railroad depot and bus stations had "colored" waiting rooms. Theaters required blacks to use separate entrances and sit in attic-like balconies. Bus drivers made blacks step to the rear.

The four were not the first to challenge the system.

Dudley High teachers had for years urged students to boycott downtown theaters -- don't demean yourself by sitting in "peanut gallery" balconies, they admonished.

In 1955, local NAACP leader George Simkins was arrested for trying to integrate Gillespie Park Golf Course. In 1957-58, Josephine Boyd spent a lonely year as the only black among 2,000 students at Greensboro Senior High School (now Grimsley).

The sit-ins, however, are the most remembered.

"Until that time, everyone thought something was right just because it had been that way for so long," says Greensboro lawyer McNeill Smith, a longtime civil libertarian. "I think the sit-ins made everyone stop and think about the type of system we had."

Before going to Woolworth's that February day, the four students agreed to a code of conduct. They would miss no classes. They would be courteous at all times. If punched, they would turn the other cheek. If arrested, they would go peacefully.

"We fully talked about the prospects of going to jail," McCain says. "In fact, we didn't think we'd come back to campus."

They met after classes outside Bluford Library at 4 p.m. and began walking up East Market Street, passing through the Southern Railway underpass, the dividing point between black and white Greensboro.

McCain wore his blue Air Force ROTC uniform. Later, someone would suggest this was symbolic.

"That had nothing to do with it," he says. "I had an ROTC class that afternoon. I didn't change clothes afterward because we were interested in saving time."

Along East Market, they stopped at Ralph Johns' clothing store. It was one of the few white-owned stores in Greensboro that welcomed blacks. The flamboyant Johns had settled in Greensboro after World War II service at the old Army base off Summit Avenue.

Appalled by Southern segregation, the native Pennsylvanian had been encouraging his black customers for years to demand service at downtown lunch counters. No one volunteered until the four freshmen showed up that day.

Various accounts of the sit-ins have Johns supplying money, promising bail bond, even coaching the participants. McCain, McNeil, Blair and Richmond have conflicting memories about Johns' exact role. All agree, though, that "Cuz," as Johns was called, was a friend.

"He's the world's great inspirator," says Richmond, who now works at Greensboro Health Care Center.

Leaving Johns' store, the four walked on to Woolworth at the corner of South Elm and Sycamore streets.

Ezell Blair was trying to make good on a playground boast he made as a 9-year-old at Greensboro's J.C. Price School. He told friends that someday he was going to eat downtown and drink from a white water fountain.

"As kids, we always wanted to know what water from a white water fountain tasted like - we thought it would taste like lemonade," Blair says.

Outside the dime store, the students looked at each other for encouragement. Finally, McCain, the biggest of the four, said, "What the hell, let's go in."

They split up inside the store and followed a planned routine, first buying toothpaste and other goods. McCain and McNeil then went to the L-shaped lunch counter. Seconds later, Blair and Richmond slipped into seats beside them.

"I was the last one to sit down because I was the most afraid," Richmond recalls with a laugh. "If someone had come up behind me and said, 'Boo,' I would have fallen out of the chair."

A white waitress demanded to know what they were doing.

They said they wanted coffee and doughnuts, although Richmond believes he may have asked for cherry pie and ice cream.

The woman said words to the effect of, "We don't serve Negroes at this counter." She pointed to a separate stand-up counter for blacks.

The students produced receipts from their purchases. They asked politely why, if their money was good elsewhere in the store, the sit-down lunch counter should be off-limits.

The waitress walked off. A black woman who worked behind the counter approached. "Why don't you boys go back to the campus where you belong," she said. "It's people like you who make our race look bad."

Blair says, "We were shocked to hear her make this statement, but we didn't get angry. We knew she was under pressure.

Another black woman, Geneva Tisdale, was making sandwiches behind the counter that day. She didn't know what to think when she saw the four youths. Eventually, though, she started thinking.

"You began to wonder to yourself why it was the way it was," says Tisdale, who still works at Woolworth. "I mean, we worked here, but we couldn't sit at the counter, either."

The students heard a few racial slurs muttered from the whites around them. But there were no threats. One man asked one of the four to pass the salt or sugar or something his way.

The four were startled when two elderly white women approached and began talking to them.

"Boys, we support what you're doing," one said. "You stay and sit there."

"We felt like that was a sign from God," Richmond says.

Meanwhile, Woolworth manger C.L. (Curly) Harris, after failing in his attempt to get the students to leave, headed for the police station to see Chief Paul Calhoun.

According to "How It All Began," a book by Miles Wolfe Jr. about the sit-ins, Calhoun didn't share Harris' outrage at the students' action. The chief told Harris it would "probably blow over."

"As far as we were concerned, the people had a right to be in the store," says Calhoun, now retired and living in Summerfield.

Calhoun told Harris no arrests would be made unless he swore out a trespassing warrant. Harris, who is retired and who declined to be interviewed, did not seek a warrant.

Several police officers, however, were sent to the store to maintain order. Police Col. E.R. Wynn soon became involved in the Woolworth watch.

Like Ralph Johns, he was a Northerner who had chosen to stay in Greensboro after being discharged from service here. He loved his adopted city but was puzzled by its Southern ways.

"So many of the things I was witnessing and being a part of here were sort of alien to me," says the now-retired Wynn.

Sit-in participants today praise Greensboro police for fairness during the sit-ins. Demonstrators were not abused. Whites with Confederate flags were hustled away when they tried to start trouble.

"I don't think the sit-ins could have been successful anywhere but Greensboro," Richmond says.

After the four students had been at the counter about an hour, Harris announced the store was closing.

The youths told the manger they would be back the next day.

Outside, the sidewalk was crowded with the curious. A news photographer took photos of McCain, McNeil, Richmond and Blair.

Elated that they had done what they said they were going to do, the students headed back to campus, stopping at Ralph Johns' store briefly to celebrate.

"That walk back was probably the greatest emotional high in my life," McCain says. "I certainly felt relieved. ... I had lost a tremendous mental burden."

Word of the daring episode spread quickly about campus.

That night the four met with student leaders, some of whom no doubt felt upstaged by the freshmen. But the upperclassmen agreed to join the sit-ins the next day.

Tuesday, about 30 male and female students showed up at Woolworth. Again, service was denied. In growing numbers, students from A&T and Bennett returned the next day and the day after.

On the third day, the effort spread to Kress, a five-and-dime down the street that later had a group of black students arrested for trespassing.

Although the story was downplayed at first by the local newspaper, it soon became the major story. Gov. Luther Hodges issued a statement - not sympathetic. One state legislator from down East threatened to cut A&T's budget. But school administrators defended the right of students to peacefully protest on their own time.

Each day, crowds gathered on the sidewalks to watch through windows as students occupied the counter. McNeill Smith, a local lawyer, remembers standing with a county commissioner.

"He asked me, 'How could the A&T students do this to Greensboro after we had bought them so many new band uniforms?' " Smith recalls.

Ku Klux Klansmen and white hecklers, some carrying signs with racist taunts, often were present. A white youth torched some newspapers and tossed them under seats occupied by blacks. He was arrested.

Greensboro Mayor George Roach appointed a biracial committee to seek a solution to the Woolworth and Kress impasse. He named City Councilman Ed Zane as a mediator.

"I have never been treated better," Zane says of his nighttime trips to the campus to meet with students. "I had complete assurance that nothing (violent) was going to happen."

Several whites from Greensboro traveled to New York and Atlanta to ask top Woolworth and Kress officials to change their Southern policy, but the stores wouldn't budge. The executives feared a loss of business if they integrated while other downtown restaurants continued to bar blacks. The other downtown restaurateurs in turn said they feared integration would drive white customers to suburban restaurants.

"It was my living, my future," says Boyd Morris, who owned the segregated Mayfair Cafeteria on North Elm Street.

Finally, on July 25, 1960, Woolworth agreed to integrate its Greensboro store. According to William Chafe's 1980 book about race relations in Greensboro, Woolworth had lost $200,000 in business during the sit-ins.

Surprisingly, the four young men who started it all didn't return to enjoy a victory meal. Blair says he finally sampled the fare about a year later.

"Just happened to be in the neighborhood," he says. "No one recognized me. No one was surprised that I was there - and that's the way it should have been."

The four did return to the lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1980, for a 20th anniversary get-together.

This time the service was speedy. The waiter was Aubrey Lewis, a black Woolworth vice president who flew in from New York to do the honors.

Today, Lewis says Woolworth is a corporate leader in hiring minorities and buying goods from minority businesses. What happened in Greensboro in 1960 had a lot to do with this policy, he says.

"I felt wonderful when I served them five years ago," he says. "It was like I got a chance to say that I'm sorry for what happened, but look where we are today and if we work together where we will be even further in the future."

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