Dedication of the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in historical marker

I had the honor today of witnessing the recognition of a civil rights landmark here in The-Town-That-Tobacco-Built.

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This afternoon, North Carolina Historical Marker G-123 was dedicated at the site of the 23 June 1957 segregation protest at the Royal Ice Cream parlor, just north of downtown Durham.

The 1960 Greensboro sit-ins sparked a national movement but were not the first such action. Individual and group protest actions prior to 1960, generally isolated and often without wider impact, took place across the state and region. A protest in 1957 in Durham had wider consequence, as it led to a court case testing the legality of segregated facilities. The Royal Ice Cream Company had a doorway on the Dowd Street side with a "White Only" sign and, on Roxboro Street, a sign marked "Colored Only." A partition separated the two sections inside the building.

On June 23, 1957, Rev. Douglas Moore, pastor of Asbury Temple Methodist Church, and six others assembled at the church to plan the protest. The young African Americans moved over to Royal Ice Cream and took up booths. When they refused to budge, the manager called the police who charged them with trespassing. Newspaper coverage in the Durham-Raleigh area was mixed. The Durham papers printed the story on the front-page the next day but it was buried inside the Raleigh News and Observer; The Carolinian, an African American newspaper, placed it on the front page.

On June 24 the protesters were found guilty of trespassing and each fined $10 plus court costs. On appeal the case went to Superior Court and a jury trial. An all-white jury rendered a guilty verdict of trespass on each defendant. The case was appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court that upheld the law regarding segregated facilities. On July 15, 1958, the seven protesters paid fines totaling $433.25. Attorneys appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court but the High Court refused to hear the case.

I learned today that while the 1 February 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, NC, get much of the historical acknowledgment of being "The Launch of a Civil Rights Movement" (as depicted at the Greensboro News-Record website), the Durham students defied Jim Crow laws more than 2½ years earlier. And unlike the "Greensboro 4," the "Royal Seven" were arrested and ultimately found guilty of trespassing.

I suspect that one reason the Greensboro Woolworth's sit-in is so widely remembered is because it was followed each day by progressively swelling crowds, up to 300 by the 5th of February. Part of the Greensboro Woolworth's counter is enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History.

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Also different from the Greensboro sit-in is that the Royal Seven were young men and women. In addition to the then-28-year-old Rev Moore, the students were Mary Elizabeth Clyburn, Claude Glenn, Jesse Gray, Vivian Jones, Virginia Williams and Melvin Willis. So, most exciting was that two of the original seven protesters were in attendance: Ms. Virginia Williams and Rev Moore. Ms Clyburn is the only other surviving member, was unable to make it but had her sentiments quoted in today's paper.

Ms Williams (above left) is local and was originally the only protester expected to be at today's ceremony. However, Rev Moore (above right) was a last-minute surprise as he lives up in DC and made time in his still-busy schedule, choosing to bundle today's visit with some family business over in his hometown of Hickory. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have gotten some one-on-one time with each of these living history legends after the ceremony.

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Above is a shot of Mr Ugo Coletta (left) about to shake hands with Mr Charlie Dunham (Dunham has his other hand on one of the leaders of the landmark effort, Mr R Kelly Bryant, Jr., who also emceed the ceremony). Coletta's family owned the Royal Ice Cream parlor in 1957. Dunham purchased it in the 90s where he then operated a fried chicken restaurant until 2007.

The always-remarkable historic preservation blog, Endangered Durham, has some great photos of Royal Ice Cream from 1957, including some picketers, and of Charlie Dunham's just before the building was torn down to make room for a school for a church across the street. Interestingly, author Gary Kuebke has this to say about the larger issue of preserving such buildings:

Inexplicably, Union Missionary Baptist, a predominantly African-American congregation across Dowd St., tore this building down on August 9, 2006. This bolsters my theory that while faith communities have, in the past, brought together the community at large, at present they are one of the preeminent threats to history and architectural preservation. In an effort to attract more patrons, inner city churches aggressively expand surface parking, to the detriment of the neighborhood and irreplaceable historical sites. Union Missionary Baptist has acquired large amounts of property around their buildings, including many houses. If you are a fan of the continued existence of any of these houses, please contact the church, the planning commission, city council, etc.

Incidentally, Endangered Durham also posted on Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr's, visit to the Bull City in mid-February, 1960, just after the Greensboro sit-in. Photos 5 and 6 in this post show Rev Moore escorting Dr King.

Almost never happened
I also had an e-mail exchange with Mr Eddie Davis, a career educator and a Governor Jim Hunt appointee to the North Carolina State Board of Education. Mr Davis also authors the blog, Inclusive North Carolina. Some in the audience commented to me that the landmark would not have become a reality without Mr Davis joining the effort. He was quoted in the Herald-Sun about this point and how he views the larger significance of the historic marker:

Eddie Davis is an organizer of this afternoon's ceremony. He feels the joint unveiling will have powerful meaning for Durhamites.

"We're looking forward to this new era of 21st-century sensibilities and to have people ... put behind the old days of segregation and to look forward to the new days of unity and respect for all," said Davis, a former North Carolina Association of Educators president.

Davis said that the successful campaign to secure the plaque began in September 2007 at a panel discussion on the sit-in when Bryant told the audience that the state had declined to recognize the event. By mid-December, endorsements for a plaque had been secured from the City Council, Board of County Commissioners, Board of Education and other local groups, and a state panel ordered that the marker be cast.

The significance of the 1957 event goes beyond its being the state's first, Davis believes, because the legal appeals showed the potential for using courts to promote social change.

"Some people think that even though they were unsuccessful and ... were found guilty along the way and did not have the guilty verdict overturned at any stage, it still raised the national consciousness within civil rights organizations," Davis said. "So I think people recognize that even though they were unsuccessful, it still indeed helped to dismantle segregation."

"Tell the children what we did here"
I'm guessing that about 200 people showed up today for the dedication, perhaps 90% African American but with a few white folks, some of whom also brought their children. Rev Moore seized on this and told the crowd, "Be sure you tell the children what we did here."

The PharmKid wasn't interested because it was going to take more than a half-hour (her professed limit for any of Daddy's non-play activities) and, anyway, she thought it was silly that anyone wouldn't let someone into an ice-cream shop because their skin was darker than hers. But we did have a nice talk about it. She looked at me like I was crazy when I tried to explain that there were separate entrances for people with different skin color.

She asked me how people knew which door to use. It sounded ridiculous and felt sad to have to explain to my daughter that we used to have signs and separate facilities for African Americans - not in my lifetime, but certainly when her grandmother was in high school.

And then when I told her that the darker students used the "White Only" door and sat in the booths, she got a mischievous look on her face and said, "Good!"

Other coverage in the local fishwrappers:
Durham Herald-Sun
Raleigh News & Observer

30 Nov 2009 - Herald-Sun report on dedication by Matthew E Milliken:
"Sit In Stood Up to Segregation"
- Matthew has a couple of photos that are much better.

Many thanks to author, historian, and North Carolina Central University archivist Andre' Vann who always takes me under his wing, schools me, and introduces me to everyone.

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Wish I had known this was going on today! Thanks for the coverage!