50 Years Later, North Carolina Sit-In Site Becomes Museum Fifty years ago, on Feb. 1, four black college students sat down at a whites-only Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and asked to be served. Their action sparked a movement that helped lead to the integration of public places. Now the building that housed that lunch counter is a civil rights museum, opening Feb. 1.

Fifty Years Later, N.C. Sit-In Site Becomes Museum

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/123084365/123202034" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Fifty years ago today, February 1st, 1960, four African-American college students sat down at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in North Carolina. The so-called Greensboro Four kept coming back every day for six months until they were served. Their determination inspired thousands of peaceful sit-ins and helped to end official segregation in the South. And today, a museum opens to honor that history. Here's Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio.

JESSICA JONES: I'm sitting here in the middle of a long row of metal lunch counter stools with red and green vinyl cushions. And I'm resting my elbows on a black counter that stretches all the way to the end of the room. This is where the young men known as the Greensboro Four sat and asked to be served just like white customers were. And so for a lot of people today, this is more than just a lunch counter.

SKIP ALSTON: We feel that this place here and this entire building is holy ground. What took place here on February 1st, 1960, was very holy and ordained.

JONES: Skip Alston is a tall, eloquently dressed county commissioner whose expression is somber as he describes how back in 1994, this downtown building was on the verge of being demolished. So he and his friend Earl Jones, then a city councilman, decided to buy the dusty, abandoned store and turn it into a civil rights museum.

EARL JONES: When it comes to Jim Crow and Southern segregation and the horror of it, some people want to have amnesia and want to forget, don't want to be reminded.

ALSTON: And we knew that it wasn't going to be easy. And we knew that some people who didn't want the people sitting down at this lunch counter in 1960, they still were around.

JONES: Alston and Jones were controversial figures in Greensboro. As leaders of the local NAACP, they frequently took stands that alienated some white residents. After buying the building, they needed to raise about $10 million to renovate it. But former Greensboro Mayor Keith Holliday says they got almost no community support.

KEITH HOLLIDAY: Believe me, they had big targets on their backs. And people were constantly throwing, you know, rocks their way through criticism of various projects, things they were working on. So naturally, when they came onto this idea, it was met with resistance.

JONES: In 2000, voters rejected a $3.1 million bond for the project. Four years later, the museum's board hired Amelia Parker to head the museum and help it become an affiliate of the Smithsonian. Parker says the same year, workers made a startling discovery: there was a small creek running through the building's foundation.

AMELIA PARKER: And a museum cannot have that kind of condition. And so we had to stop everything and start again from the beginning.

JONES: And that means a lot to Franklin McCain, one of the participants in the sit-in half a century ago.

FRANKLIN MCCAIN: Its very being says this museum exists because there was the time that we don't want to go back to. And it also represents a kind of a beacon for what's possible, and it says to people that all sorts of good things are possible if people work together and respect each other.

JONES: For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Greensboro, North Carolina.

INSKEEP: I'm looking here at a timeline of the move toward integration, including photos, one of them is showing that lunch counter. You can see it at npr.org.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.