History in the Hallway
In the hallway of a building at North Carolina Central University, sits a section of a lunch counter complete with pie rack, coffee cups, and saucers. Two red vinyl covered stools are anchored to the floor. Next to it is a red vinyl booth. You can sit there, chat, take pictures, touch the items. They are just out there in the hallway where hundreds of students pass every day.
The only way you would know the significance of this display is to read the framed photo copy of a 10-year-old news story perched on the counter. The display, including menus, came out of the Woolworth's department store at 124 W. Main Street in Durham, North Carolina. (That address is now an empty lot. The building was pulled down years ago.) That Woolworth's was one of several in Georgia where civil rights activists staged peaceful sit-ins in 1960 to protest segregation.
A sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, just a few days before the Durham protest on February 8, got most of the national media attention. A photograph taken there became the iconic image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s non-violent protests. But Durham had a place in that history, too. Eight days after the Durham sit-in, Dr. King visited the city and made one of his famous speeches.
"Let us not fear going to jail if the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights," King said. "Maybe it will take this willingness to stay in jail to arouse the dozing conscience of our nation."
He also made a stop at the Woolworth's counter. Woolworth's closed it's counters for business, reopening them in the summer--desegregated.
The store closed for business in 1994. The counter was saved by the director at North Carolina Central University at the time. NCCU is the first public liberal arts college founded for African-Americans.
When I read about it being at the school, I decided to go see it. I expected it to be behind glass, but it just sits there out in the hallway. It's been there 10 years and looks completely undisturbed. The coffee cups, salt and pepper shakers, pie rack, and napkin holder can be picked up and moved around. Students walk by as you sit there and rearrange things, but no one asks you to leave. No one pays any attention to you as you snap pictures and take notes.
So does this mean that no one cares anymore about the struggle of the 1960s? I don't think so. After 10 years in a university hallway, the display remains pristine. Someone, somewhere in that building takes good care of this little slice of history in the hallway.