First students to stage their own sit-in honored

Several dozen people of all ages and skin color gathered on Wrenn Street behind the former Woolworth’s building Wednesday afternoon to watch the unveiling of a monument commemorating the Feb. 11, 1960, sit-in organized by William-Penn High School students.

Council member Mary Lou Blakeney , who, at 15, was one of the student participants, opened the ceremony and introduced several speakers.

She asked the members of the audience who participated in the sit-ins and the marches to join her at the podium.

Blakeney recalled that the sit-ins moved from Woolworth’s to stand-ins at local movie theaters, church pray-ins and swim-ins at City Lake Park.

Carlvena Foster told the audience that High Point youths were the first high school students in the nation to stage their own civil rights activities.

From these activities, the city’s human relations commission was founded. The commission still works today to bridge the gaps among the city’s different cultures.

“Imagine the courage it took four high school students to walk down the street, enter Woolworth’s and sit down respectfully at the lunch counter that day,” said Mayor Becky Smothers . She had shared the same thought with her granddaughter earlier in the day.

Smothers gave a key to the city to the Rev. B.E. Cox , who helped the high school students organize their event a few days after Greensboro’s famous sit-ins. He is one of the original Freedom Riders, and one of three still living today.

Ron Wilkins , former councilman, read “A Seat at the Table,” a poem he wrote just for the event.

“I could not do what I do if not for your courageous acts,” said Bruce Davis , High Point native and Guilford County commissioner, to the former high school students and civil rights leaders.

After prayers and speeches, Jay Warren of Warren Sculpture Studios of Oregon helped unveil the monument, which he designed and created.

Lawrence Graves , 80, said the monument is one of the better things that could have happened to the city. With the nation facing an economic crisis, Graves said the High Point sit-ins serve as an example of what can be done when people work together.

“We need to be willing to work together to hold elected officials accountable, to work together to make this a better place to live,” he said. “The sit-ins demonstrate what people can do if people work together for the good of the whole.”

Graves was a police officer at the time of the sit-ins. He trained German shepherds, which he gave to Cox to protect him at his home during the tumultuous time.

Foster, 10 at time of the sit-ins, remembers watching the arrests and events on television. “It was scary as a child because we didn’t understand the significance.”

“It means so much,” said Maria Fleming , who was 12 at the time of the sit-ins. “I remember when we couldn’t drink out of the water fountains.”

“I could cry. I could shout and cry. I really could,” said Mary Reese , who was 17 in 1960.

“It’s about educating the children,” Blakeney said. The history needs to be shared so similar race relations do not occur again. She told young members in the audience that if they can eat where they want, sit where they want, travel however they want and stay where they want, they need to thank someone.

Contact E.A. Seagraves at 883-4422, Ext. 241, or elizabeth.seagraves@news-record.com

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