Students look back to 1960 sit-in
It took just 45 minutes to take a stand.
To Mary Lou Blakeney and Arlean Wilkes it felt like a lifetime.
“We had no idea what to expect and had a sense of nervousness and fear of the unknown,” Blakeney said. “We had a goal and that was to do it orderly and nonviolently.”
Blakeney and Wilkes were part of the Woolworth’s Sit-In Civil Rights Movement in High Point in 1960. The sit-in organized and carried out by 24 students from William Penn High School and 2 students from High Point Central. Blakeney was 15 and Wilkes was 17 at the time of the sit-in.
The students took a week and a half to prepare themselves for the hatred they would have to face. They would meet every day to role play and act out scenarios with the help of the Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, an original Freedom Rider and civil rights activist, along with taking an oath of nonviolence. Cox, a minister at Pilgrim Congregational Church, walked and sat with the students on that Thursday, along with the Rev. Fred Shuttleworth of Greensboro.
The women said that on that Feb. 11 in 1960 the school was full of excitement as they tried to keep the sit-in a surprise.
“School was buzzing all day long. We were trying to keep it from the teachers but somebody leaked it,” Blakeney, now 68, said. “The principal, Samuel Burford, tried to discourage us, subtly, with orders from then Superintendent Dean Pruette. Some of the teachers were saying ‘You guys be careful’ or ‘I hope you guys know what you’re doing.’ ”
When the bell rang at the end of the day, the 26 students walked up Washington Street to what was then Carl Chavis YMCA on Fourth Street. They met in the gym, put their books down and had a group prayer before heading out. They walked with the guys on the outside and the girls on the inside.
“We got encouragement and warnings from the adults along the way. It was not that they tried to stop us but they, too, were concerned,” Blakeney said.
Wilkes, 70, can remember when she got to the Woolworth’s building on Wrenn Street and walked up to the counter.
“There were very few seats available because white people were sitting and having their meal,” Wilkes said. “We took the ones that were vacant and everybody started to scramble. We sat down with our books and started reading or writing whatever lessons we had to do.”
At the time, the counter was reserved for whites only except the end of the counter where blacks could pick up their food.
“The people that were seated jumped up and ran, so we took those seats too,” Blakeney said. “They immediately closed the counter and a girl told us we had to leave. Rev. Cox said that we were not leaving and we wanted to be served. She put the closed sign on the counter and then went in the back to get the manager. He came out looking bewildered and then he turned around and went in the back. We knew what was coming.”
The women said that not long after, two cops came into the building but didn’t say anything to them. Pretty soon, the place was filled with angry white teenagers and adults who yelled vulgarities and obscenities to them. Some members of the crowd even pushed some of the students to get them to leave.
“The hatred I saw in those faces scared me. It was almost like looking at the devil himself,” Blakeney said.
Wilkes said that while she was sitting there, she kept thinking how the black community supported the stores.
“We paid taxes just like they did and we were entitled to the same thing,” Wilkes said. “Taxes are taxes and they do not discriminate against you.”
The women said that the store started turning off the lights and closing up to get the students out. The students then traveled back to Washington Street, past all of the white-owned stores and with an angry mob behind them.
“We weren’t safe until we crossed Centennial Street,” Blakeney said. “It had snowed about three days before so people would make snowballs, some with needles in them, and throw them at us. One person had their coat slashed when we sat at the counter.”
The women said that they remember walking into the gym and watching everyone fall into each others arms and crying.
“We were glad it was over. That first time was unlike any other time. It was a release of all those pent-up emotions and the relief of getting back safely,” Blakeney said.
Wilkes said that she was glad it was over and they were back safely.
“It was something that we had never done and I think it was a good start,” Wilkes said.
The women would continue to protest and picket for civil rights and equality in High Point until a Human Relations Commission was formed. But both women admit that the change started with just 45 minutes and a seat.
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