THE BLOG

Take a Seat and Make History

04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • EllynAnne Geisel Author, "The Apron Book, Apronisms, and The Kitchen Linens Book"

At almost 12 years old, the highlight of my week was spending Saturday morning at the Carolina Theatre's Circle K Club with my girlfriends.

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"Bussy" McGill, whose daddy owned the Carolina, saved the best seats for our clique - the first row of the mezzanine-level balcony - and our popcorn and Cokes were on the house.

The year was 1960, and the Club's feature film was appropriate for the young audience, with nary a hint of sexuality, much less controversy, as was brewing a few blocks away.

The Carolina was near the Woolworth's, our destination once the Club let out. After cruising the aisles and standing in line so the perfume ladies might spray our wrist "pulse points" with Evening of Paris, we took our seats at the lunch counter and asked to see the menu.

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We knew the menu by heart, but studied it just the same, before ordering grilled cheese sandwiches (which came with potato chips) and chocolate milkshakes.

Twirling left to right on our stools, we chattered with one another, licking drippy cheese from our fingers, sipping our shakes and at the appointed time, waited outside the five and dime for the mother-of-the-week to pick us up.

We altered this routine during the five or so months of the historical Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in, following instructions by our parents to gather instead at the lunch counter located in the basement of Meyer's Department Store until further notice. As good girls, we adhered to the relocation without fuss and ultimately deemed it spiffier than Woolworth's and our new Saturday lunch spot.

When I return to Greensboro for a yearly visit with family, my girlhood friend, Ginny Ray, and I have a routine of lunching in old downtown. Parking the car, our walk to the Liberty takes us past Woolworth's, which always sets us to recalling our obliviousness to the historical sit-in and the beginning of the civil rights movement. How could you have been so naive/dense/egocentric/stupid? are what our adult children ask us, and to them, we have no answer.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of that sit-in and I am marking the occasion with a donation to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, newly opened within the original Woolworth's.

Looking at the photo of the preserved counter, with the orderly row of stools, the shiny napkin dispensers, the grill awaiting orders of toasty cheese sandwiches... I picture the four black college students who seated themselves and asked to see the menu.

If their parents had known of their plan, they may have cautioned against such protest, and being good boys, they may have listened. But they were on a mission, and they stayed in those seats, and they changed our world.

To Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain, I say thank you.

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