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International Civil Rights Museum

Historic Woolworth's, site of Greensboro's civil rights museum

[Photo by me]

I just wrote about the first stop of our visit to Greensboro, North Carolina, last Wednesday, the Greensboro Historical Museum. This was a warmup for our day’s principal destination, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. It is on the site of the Woolworth’s where four North Carolina A&T students staged their historic lunch counter sit-in in 1960. As I explained in writing about the museum two months ago, we had seen a portion of the lunch counter two years ago at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and I was eager to see the rest.

One can visit the civil rights museum by guided tour only. Three weeks ago, I called to reserve a 1:00 PM tour. It emerged that this was unnecessary. We arrived around 12:45 PM, went into the store, and stood in line behind a family of three and a man. They bought tickets for the tour, I announced that we had a reservation, the woman at the counter nodded her head, and sold us two tickets. A few minutes later, the six of us being the lone guests, our tour began.

The guide was a stern taskmaster. She lectured us on the house rules — no photographs, no touching, etc. — then led us down the escalator from the lobby to the basement. Over the next 75 minutes, she would take us into a sequence of spaces, all of which was designed to allow for unescorted study, but we had to glance quickly at any of the written explanations, for she would give us her version of the story and hurry us on. Not that she did a bad job. In fact, she was an excellent guide. The problem with this arrangement was simply that there was so much more to see and read about than we were given the time to do.

Here’s a brief rundown of the tour.

1. At the foot of the escalator is an orientation space. Our guide spoke about slavery and we could see, through the clear wall, a scene with shackles where slaves would be auctioned. On another wall was more orienting information, I can’t remember what. I tried to walk closer to one object, but was told to stand back or I would trigger the opening of the door to the next room.

2. We entered the Hall of Shame. Well, first, our guide told us we would enter it and warned us of graphic images. She looked sharply at the parents of the family of three, seemingly expecting them to offer to skip it, then she asked if they were prepared to enter. They said sure. It has graphic images indeed, from a black man burned in Nebraska some time in the 1800s to Emmitt Till. We stopped at a few, received the guide’s commentary, then moved on.

3. We took seats in the next space to watch a video enactment of the evening before the Woolworth’s sit-in, with the four young men in a dorm room discussing their plan. They go over the reasons for it, the risks they would be taking, then commit to proceeding. Three, we learn, were locals, with the fourth from New York. As the video ends, the wall on which it was projected fades away and we see into a re-creation of their room. The NCA&T dorm that they lived in was demolished, but first some furniture was salvaged and is on display in this exhibit. But before we could walk closer for a look, we were taken to a long hall, our guide explaining that as we walk it, we should imagine the walk the four students took from their dorm to the Woolworth’s.

4. The hall has large photos on the walls, the last ones being Gandhi on one side and Martin Luther King on the other. We stopped at the end as the guide recited the names of the photographed people, all from the US civil rights movement other than Gandhi.

5. From the hall, we took an escalator up, arriving at the Woolworth’s. Or rather, a large space that had been the Woolworth’s, with a long lunch counter running along two perpendicular walls. I don’t recall ever seeing such a huge lunch counter. The two runs of seats were each at least 25 seats long, perhaps 30. Re-created on the walls were prices of items, 5-cent Pepsis and 85-cent turkey club sandwiches. The seats alternated in color between green and orange. We were told that three sets of four seats had been removed, one in the Smithsonian, one in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, the third I didn’t catch where. But we saw no gaps. Had they been filled with seats from other Woolworth’s? Were these the original seats? It’s all a puzzle.

We watched a video on the wall behind the counter that told the sit-in story, with actors re-enacting the scene. The four students sitting down, being refused service, but staying put. An imaginary African-American waitress urging them to leave so they don’t make trouble for everyone. An imaginary white waitress being nasty. A white woman sitting amongst them who expresses support for what they’re doing. More students joining in subsequent days, bringing their books to study and staying all day, with men shown leaning in with unfriendly faces. The store manager studying his books and deciding this was bad for business. The decision to integrate.

I’ve skipped over some of the background. Everyone could shop in the store. It’s only sitting at the counter that was closed to blacks. They could order food at one location in the counter, receiving it and having to stand around in the store to eat it.

6. This was the highlight of the tour, and I thought the end, but through the next door lay a detailed exhibit on the Jim Crow south. There were sections on travel by bus and train, staying in hotels, schools, medical care, voting, … . Each had photos and signs, buttons to push for narratives. I think one could spend a good two hours going through it all. But once again we were raced around by our guide, who highlighted some of the photos and history from each section. For instance, we got to see the test that potential voters would have to pass to be allowed to vote, a hopeless test. I asked what about whites who failed, and the guide explained that children of voters had the right to vote, so they wouldn’t have to take the test. It’s new voters who had to pass, excluding many blacks and some whites.

7. Lastly, there was a room with photos of civil rights efforts worldwide. I entered it prematurely, setting off the video that plays along one wall. The guide made some closing remarks, then we came out to the lobby.

If only we had the leisure to wander on our own. But still, a great visit.

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Categories: History, Museums
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