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Commemorating the courage of four

Museum in Woolworth Building to open on 50th anniversary of Greensboro Four sit-ins

by Marlena Chertock, January 20, 2010
The International Civil Rights Museum, located in the 1929 F.W. Woolworth Building in Greensboro, is scheduled to open on Feb. 1,. The museum covers 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, including the exact lunch counter from the Greensboro sit-ins. Photo by Molly Carey.
Fifty years ago, four black college students joined together to fight discrimination and pervasive injustice in the American South. On Feb. 1, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum opens in the Woolworth building where the Greensboro sit-ins took place.The opening will mark the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Four sit-ins. Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat at the Woolworth building five-and-dime lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960 to conduct a form of nonviolent civil disobedience.

North Carolina state legislator Earl Jones said plans for the museum have been in the making for 15 years. “When we first decided to turn the Woolworth building into a museum, we looked at the Memphis, (Tenn.) and the Birmingham, (Ala.) museum,” he said. “In Memphis it took 12 years and Alabama took 14 years. Our schedule was 12-14 years based on that,” he said.

When retail was declining for the Woolworth building, the owners decided to close the store. It was going to turn into a parking lot. “That’s where Skip and I got together and said we need to save it,” Jones said.

Jones and Guildford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin “Skip” Alston founded the Sit-in Movement in 1993 with the sole purpose of renovating and turning the historic site into a civil rights museum.

The Woolworth owners, First Citizen’s Bank, gave the Sit-in Movement its first seed money of $50,000. “They were very supportive, giving us the initial seed money,” Jones said.

“I’ve always said this building in Greensboro and North Carolina, when those four students sat down, it was a new strategy for civil disobedience, to fight oppression, not only in America, which was racial oppression, but throughout the world. And it spread. Sitting down as a strategy had never been done before,” Jones said.

He refers to the civil disobedience strategy used in South Africa, the Philippines, when the Berlin Wall came down in Germany and the students in Tiananmen Square. “These events used the same type of civil disobedience philosophy, emulated again from Greensboro,” he said.

The international aspect of the museum is incredibly important. Several exhibits will have impact on the international level. The museum will be important to North Carolina and the nation, “but more importantly to the world,” Jones said.

Jones said he sees the museum as having an impact on the future relations of human rights throughout the world. “Human rights internationally and civil rights nationally are synonymous to each other,” he said.

Jones also explains the importance of the museum becoming a center for the public to get involved. He wants the museum to be a place where people can come together and resolve social issues of the day.

“This is going to be different from civil rights museums in Memphis or Alabama because this museum will be an active museum versus a passive one,” he said. “There will be forums, workshops, various seminars, dialogues and discussions regarding major social issues of the day. We’re not going to take positions and be advocates.”

Jones first became a social activist after the Ku Klux Klan assassinated five union workers in Greensboro on Nov. 3, 1979.

“They were social activists who worked on behalf of workers in manufacturing plants in the county,” he said.

Jones attended his first NAACP meeting a week after the incident. The then  president of the Greensboro chapter of NAACP, Dr. George Simkins, appointed Jones to be the legal counsel.

Aleasha Vuncannon, an RLF Communications media contact, said McCain, McNeil and Blair Jr. will be in attendance at the majority of the museum opening events. Vuncannon said the three will attend the museum’s opening. Richmond died in 1990 of lung cancer.

There are several opening events. They include a Town Hall Forum from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 28 at A&T University’s Alumni Center. The forum, hosted by the Emmy award-winning journalist Ed Gordon, will focus on 21st century activism and protest. The event is co-sponsored by N.C. A&T State University and Bennett College, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Bennet College President Dr. Julianne Malveaux. This event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required due to limited seating. Tickets can be acquired at the museum office phone number 274-9199.

The 50th anniversary Gala and Banquet will take place from 7 – 9 p.m. on Jan. 30 at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro. This annual banquet recognizes international civil and human rights achievements by people throughout the world. Nido Qubein, President of High Point University, will host the gala and banquet.  Tickets are $100 and can be bought at www.sitinmovement.org or the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro.

A Celebration of Unity Ecumenical service will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 31 at the Greensboro  Coliseum. This service is free and open to the public. Grammy award-winning and contemporary gospel singer Yolanda Adams, Pastor Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant and Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles will lead the event.

Grand opening ceremonies at the site of the historic Woolworth sit-ins will start at 8 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 1. There will be a ribbon cutting ceremony. Museum prices are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, and $4 for children over six.

Once the museum opens, there will be several reenactments such as the lunchcounter sit-ins and a reproduction of the dorm room where the Greensboro Four discussed their plans. Vuncannon said the centerpiece of the museum, the lunch counter stools, have been restored to their 1960 look.