Race

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The lunch counter of a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina is a civil rights landmark. Four black teenagers carried out a sit-in there in 1960. But almost two years earlier, a similar protest took place in the heart of the Midwest.

From member station KMUW in Wichita, Carla Eckels reports.

CARLA ECKELS: In July of 1958, 19-year-old Carol Parks-Haun and her 20-year-old cousin, Ron Walters, decided to do something about restaurants not serving African-Americans in Wichita. At the time, both were leaders in the local NAACP Youth Council, and they organized a sit-in at Dockum Drugstore, a popular eatery with a soda fountain.

Parks-Haun remembers the humiliation of standing at the lunch counter to request a meal.

Ms. CAROL PARKS-HAUN (Civil Rights Activist): You'd come in and go to the end of this counter and when you were served anything, it was in disposable containers.

ECKELS: Ron Walters says 1958 Wichita was very segregated.

Mr. RON WALTERS (Civil Rights Activist): It was like Mississippi up north. We deliberately chose Dockum because Dockum was part of a chain, the Rexall Drugstore chain, and we felt if we could do something there in the heart of town, that it might have a consequence.

ECKELS: Walters says it was about applying economic pressure.

Nearly 50 years later in Wichita, Parks-Haun is standing on the sidewalk outside the now-vacant building reminiscing about the first day of the sit-in.

Ms. PARKS-HAUN: This is the entrance. This would've been the entrance to Dockum Drugstore. And I entered and sat on the center stool, heart pounding.

ECKELS: She ordered a Coke, not thinking that the waitress would actually serve her.

Ms. PARKS-HAUN: She gave it to me and I said, oh my. And then the others came in and they sat and she looked at them and she looked at me. She leaned forward and she said, you're not colored, are you, dear? And I said, oh yes, I am. And then she pulled away, she pulled back. Because the store policy was not serve colored people, as we were called at that time.

ECKELS: For the next three weeks, the polite well-dressed students will be refused service at the lunch counter and quietly remain seated, sometimes for hours, their presence unnerving to patrons. The students were met with taunts and threats and insults. But Walters says they had to keep the stools occupied if they were going to cost the drugstore money.

Mr. WALTERS: Sometimes we were not able to fill all those stools up, and someone came in, maybe the person was white, and they looked and they started toward an empty stool. Then they realized what was going on and they backed away. In other words, their backing away meant that they participated in the boycott. Some came in, looked at what was happening, cursed us out, because they understood then that we were depriving them of this service.

ECKELS: Finally, Parks-Haun says, nearly a month later the owner relented.

Ms. PARKS-HAUN: He came to the door and he looked directly back to his manager and he said, Serve them, I'm losing too much money. And then he left. It was that simple.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ECKELS: Wichita historian and author Gretchen Eick says the sit-in really struck a chord.

Ms. GRETCHEN EICK (Wichita Historian, Author): That set a precedent that really began what would be a very significant strategy, a strategy that would change the way business was done in the United States.

ECKELS: The Dockum Drugstore sit-in never achieved national visibility, in large part because the local newspaper didn't want to scare away advertisers. In addition, the national NAACP did not sanction sit-ins at the time. A year and a half later, sit-ins would erupt across the South and attract substantial media attention.

Tonight in Wichita, the NAACP will honor more than a dozen former protestors who started it all 48 years ago at Dockum Drugstore in downtown Wichita.

For NPR News, I'm Carla Eckels in Wichita.

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