Greensboro, North Carolina has always felt like my hometown, even though I was born and raised in Massachusetts. Every summer growing up, my family arrived in the city to reunite with our grandparents and kick off our summer vacation with beloved Southern relatives. I now visit Greensboro about once a month, and love to cruise past the vintage store fronts of downtown en route to my mother’s house. Enjoying a revival in recent years, Greensboro’s center city is the hot local destination for dining, nightlife and cultural offerings including professional theater company Triad Stage. On February 1, downtown Greensboro celebrated the long-anticipated opening of the International Civil Rights Museum in the historic Woolworth’s building. The museum’s opening date marks the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first sit-in at the lunch counter of the Woolworth’s five and dime store, organized by 4 freshman students from North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.
When I was in middle school in Massachusetts and studied the civil rights movement, I was proud to tell my class about my Greensboro connection and my mother’s firsthand accounts of the sit-in events. A Greensboro native, my mother has vivid memories of the local chaos and national attention resulting from the sit-in movement. One day in 1960, she and her best friend were record shopping downtown when they encountered bus loads of protestors walking and singing “We Shall Overcome”. The girls excitedly accepted a sign from one of the activists and joined in the march through the streets of downtown.
On a recent visit to Greensboro, I was excited that my mom was onboard to check out the new museum. We started our date with a trip to Liberty Oak restaurant, a popular downtown spot for business power lunches and the evening theater crowd. After enjoying our quiche and smoked salmon in the restaurant’s comfortable elegance, we walked the few blocks up Elm Street to the museum. On the exterior of the building, the red and gold F.W. Woolworth signs looked exactly as they might have in 1960. We arrived just in time to buy our tickets ($8 for adults, $4 for kids 6-12), and join the group of about fifty people waiting for the one o’clock tour. Right now, the only way to experience to museum is on a group tour, though self-guided tours may be available when crowds subside.
Our tour began on the lower level of museum, where our guide reminded us that our country was founded on the premise of “All Men Are Created Equal” in the Declaration of Independence. We watched a short video about the history of the civil rights struggle, from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech during the Civil War to the Jim Crow laws and segregation. As I tried to conjure up significant dates and events in the civil rights movement, I realized how much my knowledge has faded since my last American history class in high school.
We glimpsed a haunting KKK robe and mask when leaving the first gallery, the iconic emblem of hatred and racism. Our guide announced that children could bypass the next exhibit, but most parents opted to bring their kids along into the graphic “Hall of Shame”. The gallery displayed horrifying photos of lynchings, hangings and burning crosses during the civil rights turmoil. The appalling images resonated with my mother’s comment earlier in the day about growing up the 50’s & 60’s, “I can’t believe these terrible things actually happened in my lifetime.”
The next exhibit was a short film reenactment of the 4 freshman college students at NC A&T as they planned the sit-in to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter. I find it incredible that students in their teens summoned the courage to take such a dramatic risk to challenge injustice in our country. When I was a college freshman, I could barely make it to class on time. After the film, a replica of an NC A&T dorm room from the 1960’s was unveiled to show where the students might have hatched their plan. Our group then took the escalator up to the Woolworth’s lunch counter exhibit, where it seemed like we beamed ourselves back in time to 1960. The sprawling lunch counter framed by metal stools with blue and orange cushions was preserved with amazing authenticity, as was the menu above the counter offering a Turkey Club for $.65, Pepsi for $.5 and Cherry Pie for $.15. Our guide informed us that the four stools where the students sat were still in their original spots, while another portion of the counter was relocated many years ago to the National Museum of American History in DC.
Behind the lunch counter, film reenactments showed students joining the sit-in movement at Woolworth’s by reading quietly and ignoring hecklers in peaceful protest. I was surprised to find out that the entire sit-in movement in Greensboro continued for seven months, ending in the successful integration of the Woolworth’s lunch counter. My perception of the famous sit-in was as an isolated event rather than the beginning of a sustained movement of patience and persistence.
Our tour continued through galleries revealing an inside look at segregated America from hospitals to voting and education. An especially powerful example of the dichotomy between life for blacks and whites was a hologram with overlapping images of a bright, clean school classroom for white children, and a crowded, rustic classroom for black children. The tour concluded with the somber “Wall of Remembrance”, showing the names of people who lost their lives in the fight for racial equality.
Mom and I both agreed that the hour and a half guided tour was the best way to experience the museum for the first time. The guides were very knowledgable and passionate about the museum’s legacy, and steered us toward the highlights to make the most of our time. I loved that the museum included unusual and interactive elements like the hologram, touch screens, and film throughout the tour. It was as if the historical events were revived in the present to show us how our lives, our country was transformed by the brave people who won the fight for their freedom decades ago.
The museum will appeal to people from all generations and regions of the country, and will be especially heart-wrenching for those who lived through the civil rights movement in the South. People who remember when “liberty and justice” did not seem to apply to all. For younger visitors, the museum powerfully recreates the era of turmoil and triumph defined by legends like the “Greensboro 4”, and the heroes who lost their lives in the fight. I look forward to returning to the museum for another visit, and left with a deep gratitude for my inherent freedom and rights.