When the Greensboro sit-ins began on February 1, 1960, a group of interested high school students in High Point (most of whom attended William Penn) followed the situation closely. They quickly decided that they wanted to employ the same strategy to desegregate stores in their community. After extensive discussions with Reverend B. Elton Cox, Miriam Fountain (mother of Brenda and Lynn Fountain, the first two students to desegregate High Point High School), and Mrs. Sarah Herbin and Dr. William Bagwell of the American Friends Service, these young people decided to join this wave of non-violent protests. On February 11, 1960, they led a sit-in; to our knowledge, they were the first high school students to do so. It was this decision that sparked a decade of civil rights activism within the William Penn community.
On the afternoon of February 11, twenty-four William Penn students and the Fountain sisters met Reverend Cox and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in front of the YMCA on Fourth Street. They already had undertaken training sessions in nonviolent protest with Reverend Cox. Now they said a prayer with books in hand (they would do schoolwork while sitting at the counters), were reminded of their commitment to nonviolence, and headed to the Woolworth’s on Main Street.
When they arrived, they walked around the department store as if they were shopping, awaiting Reverend Cox’s signal to go for the lunch counter seats. After the signal, they took the empty seats at the counter and asked for service. All the seated customers except for one man left the counter; he finished his meal and then left. The waitress explained that she was not going to serve them, placed a closed sign on the counter, and went to fetch the manager. He told the students and their teachers to leave the counter, and when they refused, he called the police.
William Penn Students at Woolworth's. Photos courtesy of High Point Historical Society
“We had no idea what to expect and had a sense of nervousness and fear of the unknown...we had a goal and that was to do it orderly and nonviolently.”
-Ms. Mary Lou Blakeney
“The police came…they just stood around, and as time grew people were getting off work, [and] more of a crowd began to build up, especially young white males.”
With growing agitation throughout the store, the students left peacefully with the intention of returning the next day.
The walk back to Washington Street was treacherous, for the students were followed by an angry mob of white High Pointers that threw snowballs with needles at them. One person even had her coat slashed by a knife. They did not feel safe until they crossed Centennial Street, the traditional dividing line between white and black neighborhoods.
The next morning, the local newspaper recorded the sit-ins as the first entry of high school students into the spreading sit-in movement. When students returned to the store the next evening, after school, they found white students occupying most of the seats at the lunch counter. The next day, the counter was roped off, with Valentine’s Day candy boxes on the stools.
Woolworth’s had closed its counter out of fear of the tensions between protesters and High Point’s white population.
A Human Relations Commission was formed in the city, and on March 30 it recommended that stores attempt to integrate their lunch counters for a trial period of 60 days.
Unfortunately, the Commission had no enforcement powers, and some stores refused to follow its recommendation. Some establishments removed their stools, but still refused service to African Americans, a policy that led to additional protests.
After three years of protests and negotiations, all city lunch counters were integrated in 1963. By this time some of the original twenty-six protesters had graduated and left town, but their courage had sparked this significant change in High Point’s public accommodations.
A statue in Downtown High Point that commemorates the 24 William Penn High School Students who participated in the Sit-Ins on February 11, 1960.
Reverend B. Elton Cox
“....mayor asked us if we would suspend our demonstration.”