As I wrote earlier this week, I am spending the next seven days on a Civil Rights bus tour. Todd Allen and his staff have been running the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour” since 2002 and they do a great job. Messiah College, the school where I teach, sends several faculty and staff on the tour each year as part of its Christian commitment to racial reconciliation. This year I am traveling (along with my wife and daughter) with several faculty members, admissions counselors, residential life workers, students, alumni, and even a member of the Board of Trustees!
We left Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (Todd’s base of operation and, I might add, the home of Joe Namath) early yesterday morning. We spent most of the day on the bus, but did make a scheduled stop in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Our first major stop was North Carolina A&T University (Go Aggies!), a historically black college in Greensboro. On February 1, 1960, four A&T freshman–David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil–staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the downtown Woolworth 5 &10. Today, the Woolworth building serves as the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM). (The Greensboro Woolworth was open from 1939 to 1993. A non-profit organization saved the building from destruction and turned it into a museum in 2010).
Jean, one of the docents at the museum, gave a very lively tour. The highlight, as you might imagine, was our visit to the room where the Woolworth’s lunch counter was located. A refurbished counter, with original signage and dumbwaiters, is part of the exhibit. The sit-in is re-enacted on video screens that provide a perspective from someone standing behind the counter. Frankly, I wish we could have spent more time in this room. I wanted to soak it all in and reflect on the courage of these four students. I often wonder how many of my own students sit in their dorm rooms, ponder the life-transforming ideas that they encounter in class, and put those ideas into action in ways that bring meaningful change to their local surroundings.
If you are in Greensboro, the ICRCM is a must visit. A lot of the original Woolworth building remains. As we walked down the stairs into the lower level of the building, Jean informed us that the chrome railings and staircase were original. I had flashbacks to a nearly identical set of stairs, complete with chrome railings, at the J.J. Newberry’s store on Main Street in Boonton, New Jersey. I spent a lot of time in that store as a little kid–mostly buying candy and baseball cards. There was no lunch counter.
The museum is small, but it packs a big punch. The exhibits themselves invoke empathy at every turn. For example, an exhibit room called “The Hall of Shame” is filled with graphic images of violence against civil rights activists. The “Colored Entrance” is a maze-like exhibit that forces visitors to see the world from the perspective of African Americans during Jim Crow. The rooms in this exhibit are small, tight, and uncomfortable, forcing the visitor to “feel the way Blacks felt everyday” during segregation. An older African American women in our group was particularly moved by the exhibits. She told the group that she had been part of “week one” (February 8-15, 1960) of the lunch counter sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina while she was a student at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).
After dinner, we drove from Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina. We watched documentaries in the bus during the day, but on last night’s drive we watched Denzel Washington’s Fences.
We are off to a good start. Stay tuned. We are in Atlanta today.
A few more pics: