Monday, February 4, 2013

The Woolworth Sit-Ins Remembered by Woman’s College Alumni

Prior to the 1960s, all public accommodations in the South were segregated including hotels, restaurants, restrooms, theaters, water fountains, and lunch counters.  African Americans could buy food at some lunch counters and take the food out, but they could not sit at the counters to eat.

On Monday, February 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T State College students, initiated what would become a nationwide protest when they demanded the right to sit and be served at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. 

At least seven students -- Ann Dearsley, Laura Goldin, Claudette Graves, Myrna Lee, Marilyn Lott, Eugenia “Genie” Seaman, and Elizabeth “Betsy” Toth -- from the Woman’s College (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro) joined the protest later in the week.  All the Woman’s College students except Graves and Lee were white. This caused quite an uproar not only on campus but also across the South when news of three white students participating in the protest was published in the newspapers.
Dearsley, Lott, and Seaman at Woolworth on Thursday, February 4, 1960
Greensboro Daily News, February 5, 1960

These seven alumni have been interviewed and their oral histories are now housed in Jackson Library’s Hodges Special Collections and University Archives on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Following are some of their remembrances about the Woolworth Sit-ins.

recalls having one of the white men who was milling around behind the lunch counter pull a knife and run it up and down her back.  She also remembers that she, Lott, and Seaman were surrounded by several A&T football players and escorted to a cab through the white mob outside Woolworth when they were ready to leave that afternoon to return to the campus. 

In her oral history interview, Toth recalls a person threatened to hit her upside her head with a two-by-four and wanting to go after that person.  She was told by Bennett College student protesters not to react but use the non-violent approach to the situation.

Seaman remembers that she found out about the Sit-ins through Marilyn Lott’s brother who was a student at nearby Greensboro College.  Seaman was from Florida and when the Orlando Sentinel published the story of her participation in the Sit-ins, her family received hate phone calls and her father’s business suffered.

When Lott was interviewed several years ago, she recalled being expelled from the college and later reinstated because of her participation in the Sit-ins.

Several other Woman’s College students also participated including Goldin who remembered the scene at Woolworth and feeling fear “because there were all those redneck guys in their bib overalls and screaming and yelling and calling obscenities.” 

Lee wanted to be a part of the protest; however, her father asked her not to become newsworthy so she decided to use her car to drive students to the Sit-ins – She said in her interview that she had worked out a schedule to attend her classes, pick up students from A&T College or Bennett College, drop off students near Woolworth, and then pick them up for a return trip to their school.

Graves said, “It was very significant that Woman’s College had students who would take the risk to come and be a part of that effort—of the Sit-ins.”

Each of the Woman’s College students who participated in the Woolworth Sit-ins felt that it was their “moral obligation” to join the protest in spite of possible reprisals from the hostile white crowd and were proud that they had participated in the protest.

For additional information about the civil rights movement and the Woolworth Sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, please see the Civil Rights Greensboro online collection created by the Digital Projects Office at the University Libraries

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