HBCU students play pivotal role

Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond enrolled as freshmen at North Carolina A&T University in the fall of 1959. By Feb. 2, 1960, the photo of the four young men sitting at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, appeared in newspapers across the country. SITINMOVEMENT.ORG/Courtesy photo

The Greensboro Record

On Feb. 1, 1960, history was made. The Greensboro sit-in was one of the most powerful and nonviolent protests against segregation in history. Four African-American students at North Carolina A&T State University independently organized the protest. Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond were the trailblazers who started the sit-in.


The four men wanted to bring awareness and attention to racial segregation issues. These game-changers were influenced by nonviolent acts from Mohandas Gandhi and early Freedom Riders. The four students who conducted the sit-in wanted social action to end segregation in a peaceful manner. 


Ralph Jones, a local white businessman, helped put the plan into action. During the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1960 the four went into a Woolworth’s, a general merchandise store that had a dining section. 


They decided to purchase small items and keep the receipt as proof. During this time blacks were allowed in the dining area however, they were limited to a small standing snack bar. The lunch counter had a sign posted “whites only”. The young men politely asked for service at the counter. They remained seated while not being served by the staff. The store manager, Clarence Harris, called the police. However, the police could not arrest them because they purchased items from the store and were abiding by the law. The men remained seated at the counter until the store closed that night. 


On Feb. 2, 1960 the four returned to the same counter at Woolworth’s with nearly 20 other black students from Bennett College who joined forces with the four inspiring men. 


On the third day, 60 people came to Woolworth’s store. On the fourth day, more than 300 people took part in the protest. White locals continued to harass the students. 


The sit-ins continued from Feb. 1, 1960 to July 25, 1960. By the end of July 1960, Woolworth’s lunch counter began serving black people in their establishment. 


It was on July 25, 1960, that the Greensboro Woolworth’s served blacks at their lunch counter. Four black employees — Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones and Charles Best — changed out of their uniforms into regular clothing. They proceeded to order a meal. 


Over the following few weeks most lunch counters in Greensboro desegregated. The non-violent civil rights protest led Woolworth’s Department Store chain to end its policy of racial segregation in its southern stores.  


The courage the four men had sparked sit-ins all over the country. Many of the sit-ins, following the first one in Greensboro, took place in other North Carolina cities. People conducted similar protest in nearby cities such as Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte. By early march the movement spreaded to Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; and Richmond, Virginia.


The Greensboro sit-in was a catalyst for change. The four students at North Carolina A&T State University created history by standing up for something they believed was wrong. They made change without being violent. The Greensboro sit-in proved to be one of the most simple yet effective protests of the Civil Rights Movement.