Hidden from history: Bennett College women and the Greensboro sit-ins

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The piece below, which the author calls “necessary reminiscences,” concerns an event that is often credited with launching the civil rights movement of the 1960s: a sit-in campaign by African American college students to integrate the whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. When the young people were denied service on the first day of the sit-in, February 1, 1960, they refused to leave, and the lunch counter was shut down.

Over the next two weeks, as the Greensboro students continued to sit in, similar actions spread to 15 Southern cities.

More than 50,000 students participated in the new movement that year, and 3,600 were jailed. By the end of 1960, many lunch counters across the South — including the one at the Greensboro Woolworth’s — were segregated no longer.

The story I want to share with you is designed to correct a long-standing inequity and remind us that we shall know the truth, and, hopefully, the truth will set us free. I dedicate this proposition to a fundamental conviction that as a people we African Americans are as victimized and dehumanized by untruth as we are by racism.

On February 1, 1960, four young Black men from A. and T. College sat at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and requested service. Thus was born the modern-day sit-in movement.

But what led up to that moment in time, and what really triggered the decision made by the four young men? This is the untold story — hidden, ignored, distorted, falsified, and denied by the media.

Young college women with social conscience and commitment. In September 1959, I came to Bennett College, a historically Black women’s college also located in Greensboro, to teach philosophy and religion and social science. The college chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) asked me to be their adviser. I readily consented.

I came from a family environment where social activism was encouraged. My parents taught me that telling the truth was more the measure of a real man and woman than anything else in life. They further taught me to respect and like myself and to do likewise unto others but never to allow anyone to run over me.

I had come to Bennett College from Alabama A. and M. College in Normal, Alabama, where I served as the Acting College Chaplain and taught courses in history and sociology from 1958 to 1959.

During my brief stay at A. and M. College, I was instrumental in helping the student body mount a successful campus boycott against the repressive social and intellectual atmosphere which prevailed on this campus.

As a result of the students’ discipline and determination, some substantive changes were implemented which benefited the entire A. and M. campus. It was this background which I brought to Bennett College.

The members of the NAACP campus chapter were young women of intelligence with a social conscience and an unusually high degree of commitment. They were unequivocally opposed to racial injustice and desirous of changing the racist status quo which prevailed in Greensboro. They wanted informed guidance and fearless leadership and felt that I met their strict requirements.

Woolworth’s chosen as target of desegregation. From September until early November, we met constantly and discussed viable strategies to implement our goals — the first being the desegregation of all places of public accommodation.

We sought information regarding tactics from the youth chapter of the NAACP in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. They had already engaged in an effective sit-in demonstration that led to the opening up of certain restaurants in that Southwestern city.

As a result of our intensive and sometimes provocative discussions, coupled with the data from the Oklahoma City youth chapter and my insights based on similar tactics successfully pursued in my native Pontiac, Michigan, we agreed on our first target. It would be Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Our decision was rooted in a tactical and practical reality. Woolworth’s was a national chain heavily patronized by Black people all over the country. We had anticipated the real possibility of a boycott locally and nationally. We knew we would need all the sympathy and support we could get.

Just prior to the Thanksgiving recess, we shared our plans with Willa B. Player, the president of Bennett College. She displayed no opposition whatsoever but offered us some sage advice which would necessitate a change in our strategy.

She reminded us of the status of the college. It was essentially residential. Most of the students were neither native to Greensboro nor to North Carolina. The long Christmas recess was only a little over a month away.

If we inaugurated the sit-in, who would sustain the momentum until we returned?

It was a perspective which cooled our passionate ardor, but the sobering reality could not be denied.

I have said that these young women were intelligent, resourceful, and committed. With the support and blessing of Dr. Player, we decided to include the students from A. and T. College in our discussions, especially the male students. On this score the charming and attractive ladies from Bennett College had no problems whatsoever.

In a series of nightly meetings Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekends, we met, discussed, debated, refined, and finalized our strategy.

It was agreed that sometime between the Christmas recess and the return of the Bennett women to the college the students from A. and T. would put our idea into execution, and we would support them upon our return. Included in the contingent of students from A. and T. were all four of the young men who were destined to become the “Famous Four.” They heard; they participated; they believed; and they accepted.

Setting the record straight. What occurred on February 1, 1960 was not the result of a casual dormitory conversation on the campus of A. and T. College. February 1, 1960 was the culminating point of an idea rigorously thought through, meticulously researched, and enthusiastically debated and refined by a handful of courageous young Black women on the campus of an all-woman’s college where learning and social activism were inextricably intertwined and endorsed.

It is not a matter of credit. It is a matter of fairness, justice, and truth.

In the women of Bennett College and their adviser and teacher, the word and the deed coalesced and became one. Not only did we have the idea, but we also sustained the sit-ins once they started.

This is the reality. Perhaps, one day, the men from A. and T. College will come forth and corroborate the deeds of their sisters, thereby ennobling the dimension of Blackness, authenticating the quest for truth, and bringing us closer together as a people of decency and dignity in this Brave New World of Orwellian madness. Truth is really more enduring than fiction, and a million times more precious.

John Hatchett is a teacher, writer and Harlem community activist devoted to the elimination of racism, indefensible sexism and a system based on greed and the dehumanization of the planet.

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