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.
“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,” Mary Lou Blakeney recalled. While students previously were aware of the injustices of the Jim Crow system, most alumni agree that civil rights activism at the school was fairly limited before this moment. 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.
William Penn Students at Woolworth's, February, 1960. Courtesy of the High Point Historical Society, High Point, NC; The High Point Enterprise Negative Collection.
The walk back to Washington Street was treacherous, for an angry mob of white High Pointers followed the students, throwing snowballs with needles in them. One student 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 protest as the first entry of high school students into the spreading sit-in movement. When students returned to the store after school the next day, they found white students occupying most of the seats at the lunch counter. The following day, the counter was roped off, with Valentine’s Day candy boxes on the stools.
Woolworth’s management closed its counter out of fear of the tensions between protesters and High Point’s white population. Arlean Wilkes recalled that the “mayor asked us if we would suspend our demonstration.” 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. Thus the 1960 sit-ins were not conclusive, but they expanded a culture of protest that had been simmering in High Point for years and that would continue to grow throughout the decade.
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.
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 left the counter except for one man, who 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. Arlean Wilkes, one of the protesters. recalled that when “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.
With the sit-ins concluded, civil rights activists in High Point turned toward marching in protest of segregated accommodations at establishments like the Paramount Theater, the K&W cafeteria, and even McDonalds. William Penn students did not always lead these protests, but they remained active participants.
Efforts to desegregate these places began nearly as soon as the sit-ins ended, but the movement accelerated in 1963 when the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized a High Point chapter. That spring, students formed a human chain around the ticketing counter of the Paramount Theater in order to prevent moviegoers from purchasing tickets. At an earlier protest, Arlean Wilkes remembers standing in front of the Paramount for hours in the cold trying to purchase a ticket, while white opponents of desegregation poured cold water on the protesters’ heads. This time, though, the police took a more direct approach, arresting students for the first time.
A number of Penn students recalled being arrested during these middle years of the 1960s as the protests expanded and tensions between the races intensified. Laverne Lucas remembered being packed like sardines into a police van after being arrested for protesting outside the K&W, and that there were so many students apprehended by the police that they were simply let go the next morning. Dorothy Collins was arrested for sitting down on North Main Street during one of the theater protests, and said she “wouldn’t take those experiences away for anything.” Freddye Dixon was never arrested, but recalled her fear when the fire department awaited them with hoses as they tried to march across Centennial Street one night, and learning later that a mob of whites was waiting for them behind the wall of firemen. Jerry Mingo mentioned that while the teachers at William Penn could not publicly support the marches for fear of losing their jobs, they were understanding when exhausted students filed into school after a night in jail, and often looked the other way if the students fell asleep in class. Indeed, Principal Burford was repeatedly pressured by the city’s superintendent of schools to condemn the protests but refused to do so.
Protests in support of the expansion of civil rights continued beyond the closure of William Penn, with much of the leadership coming from men and women trained at the school. Indeed, the movement in High Point before, during, and after the 1960s featured many Pennites in prominent roles, whether as students or alumni. This leadership was an extension of the social responsibility that the faculty and staff of the school instilled in its students, and it remains one of the most important legacies the school has provided for the city.
After the Sit-ins
Reverend B. Elton Cox
William Penn students among the protesters at civil rights demonstrations in High Point in 1966.
William Penn students marching in High Point after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968