Remembering Our History, Fifty Years After the Greensboro Sit-ins

By Julianne Hing Feb 04, 2010

We’re coming to the end of the first week of 2010’s Black History Month, and there are a bunch of big milestones to celebrate and remember. On February 1, fifty years ago, four Black college students named Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeill, sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked to be served. Jack Newfield documented the incident in his book, A Prophetic Minority:

At about 4;45 p.m. on February 1st, the four freshmen entered the F.W. Woolworth Company store on North Elm street in the heart of the city. each of them purchased a tube of toothpaste and then sat down at the lunch counter. A Negro woman working in the kitchen rushed over tot hem and said, "You know you’re not supposed to be in here." Later the woman called the four "ignorant" and a "disgrace to their race." The students requested four cups of coffee from the white waitress. "I’m sorry but we don’t serve colored here," she informed them politely. Franklin McCain responded, "I beg your pardon, but you just served me at the counter two feet away. Why is it that you serve me at that counter, and deny me at another? Why not stop serving me at all the counters?" A few minutes later the manager of the store told the youths, "I’m sorry but we can’t serve you because it is not the local custom." The four young Negroes remained at the counter, coffeeless, until 5;30 p.m., when the store closed.

And it has since been remembered as the first public action that sparked the youth-led movement to challenge racial segregation in the South. Within days, sit-ins were being held at other public places around the South. And six months after the first sit-in at that Woolworth’s, their counter was desegregated. It’s as good a moment as any to step back and appreciate how much has been done, how hard the many generations of people before us–even before Greensboro–worked to end injustice and fight inequity. It’s also a great moment to reflect and renew our resolve for the very, very long road ahead.