Greensboro Lunch Counter

images for Greensboro Lunch Counter
On February 1, 1960, four African American college students—Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond—sat down at this "whites only" lunch counter at the Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused, and when asked to leave, the students remained in their seats in protest.
For the six months that followed, hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches, and members of the community joined the protest and boycotted the store. Their commitment ultimately led to the desegregation of the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960. Their peaceful sit-down was a watershed event in the struggle for civil rights and helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.
subject
Civil Rights Movement
African American
related event
Greensboro Sit-in
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
F. W. Woolworth Co.
Physical Description
silver (overall color)
salmon (overall color)
Measurements
average spatial: 38 in x 15 in x 15 in; 96.52 cm x 38.1 cm x 38.1 cm
See more items in
Political History: Political History, General History Collection
National Treasures exhibit
Government, Politics, and Reform
Food
Exhibition
2E Landmark
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
used
United States: North Carolina, Greensboro
Object Name
stool
ID Number
1994.0156.01
catalog number
1994.0156.01
accession number
1994.0156
Related Publication
Kendrick, Kathleen M. and Peter C. Liebhold. Smithsonian Treasures of American History
Treasures of American History online exhibition
Publication author
National Museum of American History
Publication URL
http://americanhistory.si.edu/treasures

How (not) to teach with drama

For nearly a decade, the museum has used theater as a means of enlivening the visitor experience and engaging the public in dialogue on challenging topics in history. Thousands of visitors have joined a mock civil rights training sessiondebated the use of violence with John Brown, or met Louise the Wheelwoman and discovered the social changes wrought through the use of the bicycle. Through our teacher professional development programs, we have taught educators nationwide about how to incorporate these programs into history classes and have seen some excellent, creative examples. However, we have also heard about some troubling uses of drama in the classroom, including a recent case in Virginia. Theater can be a powerful teaching tool, but one to be used wisely and carefully. Here we share a few guidelines and recommendations for classroom educators on using theater in history teaching:

A photo from the museum of the installed portion of the counter from the Greensboro diner. It includes the countertop, four chairs, and part of the back wall with a mirror on it.

Embody for empathy

When we talk with teachers about using improv games or participating in our Join the Student Sit-Ins video with students, we often call the goal "embodying for empathy"—that is, we are trying to better understand historical figures from their perspective, to empathize with them. We are not, however, going to experience what that time period "really would have been like." We cannot know that, and for many topics, such as segregation, we are grateful for that.

Be the protagonist, not the antagonist

If you are conducting a simulation, like the Join the Student Sit-Ins program, put the emphasis on the historical protagonist, not the antagonist, and never set students against one another. In our sit-in program, we do have some visitors stand in as the crowd, but they serve only as background for protesters. They do not move and do not speak; the focus of the program is on the experience of the protesters themselves.

Choose your topic wisely

Placing oneself in a pivotal historical moment, one where individuals had to make drastic choices, can be incredibly powerful. Use that power wisely, and know that some topics are too sensitive to be taught with theater. I often hear about teachers using some sort of theatrical element to teach about slavery. This is one topic that I say is off limits for theater. It was a dehumanizing institution whose legacy continues to shape our world. It is too fraught. There are other ways to get at that moment in history, including powerful narratives (hear Olaudah Equiano's narrative, read by an actor) or personal testimonies from people born into slavery that were collected as part of the Federal Writers' Project, or interpretations including PBS's The Abolitionists or the recent feature film 12 Years a Slave, based on the narrative of Solomon Northup.

Use visualization instead of simulation

While I recommend that educators select topics wisely, that in no way means that challenging topics in history should be avoided. In fact, finding ways to address challenging topics in history is one of the goals of the museum's theater program. However, there are ways to do this sensitively, including using visualization, rather than simulation. In one activity we do with teachers, called the Walk Around, we have them imagine themselves in certain places and moments in time, while simply walking around the room. For example, I might offer an open-ended description: "You are on the deck of a ship. You feel the ship rocking, and a new land comes into sight . . ." And teachers might find themselves on their way to Jamestown or Ellis Island. Or I might offer a more specific place and time: "It is March 7, 1965. You are approaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Why are you there? What are you thinking? What are you feeling, as you step up onto that bridge?" The goal is to visualize the experience, not to reenact it. The result is similar to a simulation in that, when given time to reflect and ponder the scenario given to them, they begin to consider it from a new perspective. This can be as moving, if not more so, than simulation, and avoids some of the pitfalls of simulations and recreations discussed here.

Photo of the actor playing Louise, standing next to her bicycle. Setting is outdoors with tree and bush in background.

Give students choice

Because teaching with theater can be an emotional experience, there needs to be space for students to opt out. Take volunteers and give them options for participation. Let them know that they can leave the activity at any time. Yes, some students may just sit down because they don't want to participate. That is worth the emotional cost of forcing another student into a situation with which he or she may be uncomfortable.

Don't trivialize, and have a goal in mind

History is the story of real people who made real choices and faced real hardships. Theater can be used to help students appreciate those realities, and to better understand that the choices we make every day have the potential to shape our present and future. However, to harness that lesson, educators should be careful not to trivialize challenging moments. One popular activity I often hear from teachers is about having students hide behind desks and shoot paper balls at one another to simulate trench warfare. While, again, embodying for empathy means that students will not (thankfully) know what it was like to face the brutality of World War I, this experience is not especially instructive in and of itself. Having students crouch in narrow lines can be useful for centering the mind and providing a physical experience, but then enhance the story through narrative. Read personal accounts as they sit in their makeshift trenches. Listen to oral histories. Help them reflect, and know what you hope to have them take away from the experience.

A photograph of a man wearing a historical costume speaking to a room of people seated at tables. Behind him on a projector screen is an image of the same man from a video.

I always encourage teachers to talk with their peers before introducing a theater activity in their classes, to get feedback and think hard about whether this is the best way to teach the topic at hand. Historical theater can be a transformative experience for students, but it can also be heart-wrenching and traumatic if used inappropriately. The power of taking on new perspectives is both the great opportunity and the great challenge of using drama in the classroom.

For more resources for teaching with theater, see Smithsonian's History Explorer.

Naomi Coquillon was previously manager of Youth and Teacher Programs at the National Museum of American History. She is currently an education program specialist at the Library of Congress.

Author(s): 
Naomi Coquillon
Posted Date: 
Monday, March 20, 2017 - 08:00
Topic
American History
National Museum of American History
Creator
National Museum of American History
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Tue, 14 Mar 2017 22:43:05 +0000
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Q&A with Director John Gray: Welcoming a new museum to the National Mall

Our next door neighbor, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opens on September 24, 2016, and our whole staff is abuzz. I sat down with Elizabeth MacMillan Director John Gray to discuss this exciting moment in American history as well as what's ahead for this museum when a new wing opens in summer 2017.

an exterior shot of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on a sunny day with a blue sky with clouds. The photo is taken far away from the building so you can see sidewalks, grass and a short wall. The building has three levels of metal walls that are stacked on each other.

We recently partnered with two other museums to present Many Lenses, a digital experience that explores objects from different perspectives. Can you tell me more about this collaborative project?

American history is infinitely interesting and complex because of the differing views and associations we have with objects, from the seemingly mundane to the most dramatic national symbols. The purpose of "Many Lenses" was to look at the same object, the same idea, in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian. We tried to find and illuminate the different perspectives, relationships, and connections around objects, and I think we've done that.

It's essential for the Smithsonian to talk about one American story that is inclusive and complex. We have multiple lenses or views, but it's still one story. Many Lenses is a clear demonstration of that basic belief that we live in one America with differing experiences and perceptions but ultimately share the same American experience.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens on September 24. I hear that you've taken a preview tour. Can you tell us what caught your eye?

When I was there, I saw a stunning object from the "Many Lenses" project in person—the 1968 mural from Resurrection City, USA. Its scale and its impact are so dramatic, and you can really hear the multiplicity of voices that are painted on it. Standing in front of the real object, I experienced something very different than what I saw on the Many Lenses website. I was so struck by how it frames the much larger story of the 1960s and the way in which some of us lived in the '60s or fantasize about the '60s.

The experience of seeing the mural online and in person will help visitors to NMAAHC understand the deeper meanings underpinning such a complex object as well as the spirit of the movement taking place around it.

The abolitionist tea seat that our curator Fath Davis Ruffins writes about on "Many Lenses" is another wonderful example of how you can look at an object through cultural, personal, economic, and so many other lenses. You'd normally make an assumption about what a fancy tea set means in a museum and you might be bored with that assumption because it doesn't interest you. But all you have to do is go one layer down and you'll see there's this incredible story, symbolism, and message in how a family used this tea set in their everyday lives. That's a potent object.

What else stood out to you in your exploration of NMAAHC?

The architecture and exhibition design work in concert to create an extraordinary emotional and experiential setting for visitors. Another highlight are the beautiful, profound, and sometimes agonizing quotes inscribed on the walls of the building. You can't help but be hugely moved, and then reflective in your response, and then so aware of how far we have come as a society, with yet so much more to do. This museum presents some of the most difficult subjects for America in a way that's honest, straightforward, painful, and at the same time you feel connected to the very ideas of American history.

What will be different once NMAAHC opens?

What's important is that the American story is presented through the experience and the histories of African Americans in America. And that really focuses our understanding of history in new ways from any other place on the National Mall.

The visibility of that story on the Mall is significant to all Americans. We hope that there's an increased level of visitation to Washington to see NMAAHC and that the experience people have going to that museum spills over to the rest of the Smithsonian museums, as where they can explore many facets of the American story. And likewise, people who come to this museum will also go over to NMAAHC. Visitors' experiences will be more complicated, richer, and much more expansive than they would be without that museum.

A photo from the museum of the installed portion of the counter from the Greensboro diner. It includes the countertop, four chairs, and part of the back wall with a mirror on it.

One thing the two museums have in common is that we both share the story of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter where students and community members in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged sit-ins and boycotts for six months in 1960. What will be different about the ways the two museums highlight that story?

One of the most exciting things I saw during my time at NMAAHC was the high tech interactive display they've built to bring the story of the lunch counter to life. You can sit at a counter and have a profound media experience about the actual sit-in and ask questions and learn.

But the authentic counter itself remains at this museum. Soon, we'll be moving it to another location on the second floor where we will frame this national treasure in a new way and offer immersive, in-person programs to help our audiences understand its powerful history and meanings. So between the interactive component at NMAAHC and the original lunch counter here, we really can explore the role of civil rights in America through many different entry points.

Beyoncé is said to be planning to launch a television channel that will air documentaries on American history. The Get Down about the history of hip-hop is a very popular series on Netflix. Ben-Hur is in theaters right now. History appears to be cool again. How is the museum working to share American history with our audiences in a way that connects with where they are now?

The approach for our West Wing is one of making history engaging, really experiential, and deeply moving for visitors. People are interested in things that they relate to or that make a difference in their own lives. The subjects, topics, points of view that will be expressed in the new galleries on our second floor, which opens in summer 2017, will make a difference in the lives of many people. I think that's the point.

You've been very enthusiastic about encouraging your staff to use our collections and expertise to make the world a more humane place. And part of that is responding to current events. What are relevant topics you'd like to see museum draw connections to and help people to understand?

There's no doubt that this election season in America is dealing with one key subject: what does it mean to be American? Inherent in that question is: how do you act as an American, what do you think as an American, what do you believe in as an American? Our focus on the ideals and ideas of America throughout the museum directly relate to the exact discussions and topics of today. We argue that understanding where you came from and where you want to go informs the debate enormously, helping our audiences construct a future that is more humane.

One of the best things for us to learn about democracy is that those who participate in the democracy triumph. When we open our new floor in summer 2017, our goal is to help our visitors realize how important their participation is in American Democracy. Whether it's at the ballot box or their protesting, supporting, petitioning, volunteering, donating—it counts. We're inspiring our audiences to engage with and to determine what it means to be American.

In our exhibition Democracy: The Great Leap of Faith, visitors will see a range of objects from past elections. Every candidate has had to engage the public, win them over, and encourage them to vote—and the techniques of the past are fascinating to compare with the strategies of today. In Many Voices, One Nation, visitors will see how many different communities negotiated a way to come together. That profound experience of negotiating together-ness, which is totally American, has been so successful for so long. To ensure a more humane future, every American needs to actively participate and contribute to building our society.

In the first floor lobby, cutout figures stand amid voting machines carrying candidate signs over their heads for the 2016 election

In the first floor lobby, cutout figures stand amid voting machines carrying candidate signs over their heads for the 2016 election

Secretary David J. Skorton has encouraged us to advance the Smithsonian's mission in new ways. He recently wrote to the Smithsonian staff that, "To broaden our reach and create visibility, I think we can and should take a more prominent role in convening discussions important to people, even when these reveal differences. Climate change. Cutting-edge art. Evolution. Cultural concerns and ethnicity." Can you talk about how you see us doing that at this museum?

We very much appreciate that the Secretary sees the Smithsonian as a contemporary, active institution that has an impact on people today. We work very hard to make sure our visitors' experiences in this museum are far from dry or dusty—and that we address topics important to people today. For example in American Enterprise our exhibition on the history of American business, we talk about the role of slavery in the development of the nation from an economic and property perspective. This results in a more complicated, realistic, and deeply painful understanding of the role of slavery in the nation. That discussion has been so important. As we continue our project on Latinos in Baseball, it raises all the questions and many answers about how people create an identity around being an American. And so framing these questions to be open, inviting, and interesting will generate not only much more discussion but also a higher level of understanding and compassion among all of the citizens.

If you go to the first-floor Constitution Avenue lobby today, you'll see the Hooray for Politics display with Clinton and Trump campaign signs set within a display of historic election booths. You can see visitors standing there and talking about the current campaign as well as reflecting on past campaigns and the role of voting. Here's an example of an exhibition that truly comes alive through the discussions the visitors bring with them.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. She recently helped create a Facebook Live video about some of the interesting objects in NMAAHC's Cultural Expressions gallery, a great opportunity to learn about African American foodways. 

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 - 08:00
Topic
American History
National Museum of American History
Creator
National Museum of American History
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Mon, 19 Sep 2016 16:00:50 +0000
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Freedom's tally: An African American business in the Jim Crow South

Photograph of Harold Cotton in his Greensboro, North Carolina shop. Cotton cleans a fedora with a brush. A group of hat blocks sit in the foreground, and Cotton's diploma hangs on the wall behind him.

At 15 years old, Harold Cotton tucked his shoe shine box under his arm and walked to Jefferson Square in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. The year was 1937 and the Depression had thrown most of the black men in town out of work. Those lucky enough to find employment would toil all day and might earn a dollar.  If business was good that day, Cotton might shine 40 pairs of shoes at a nickel a pair and clear two dollars or more including tips.
  
At 6 p.m. that day, after the downtown crowds had gone home, Cotton stopped in at the recently opened Bob’s Hat Shop at 108 McGee Street, hoping to meet his cousin.  However, Cotton met Robert Taylor instead. In jest, Cotton asked Taylor for a job. The older man asked, “Well, can you shine shoes?” As Taylor sat in a chair at the back of the store, Cotton proved his skill with rag and brush. Taylor offered him a job that same night.

Photograph of three metal tokens using in Cotton's shop, 1950s–1990s. The token have diveted edges and are stamped with the text, "Kelly's Lynn Boot Polish Opener."

Bob’s Hat Shop offered shoe shines along with hat cleaning and repair and was the only black-owned business allowed to operate downtown. To survive on this side of the city’s color line in the 1930s meant that Taylor had to keep his own store segregated. While black customers could get their shoes shined at Bob’s, they had to sit on a chair in the back of the shop. Only white patrons could sit on the chairs in the front of the store.
  
For the next decade, Cotton worked part time shining shoes at Bob’s Hat Shop while also holding down jobs at the El Moro Cigar factory and the Cone Mills, as well as driving a delivery truck. Even after returning from World War II and attending North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, Cotton continued to work at the store until Taylor’s death in 1948.
 
Photograph of Cotton's framed diploma from the Chicago School of Shoe Rebuilding, 1950.

With Taylor gone, Cotton joined the Great Migration of millions of African Americans leaving the South after World War II for better opportunities in the North. With an eye toward opening his own store in Chicago, he enrolled in the Chicago School of Shoe Rebuilding in 1950, earning his degree in hat cleaning and repair. Soon afterwards, Cotton received a long-distance phone call from North Carolina. The man who had bought Bob’s Hat Shop was gravely ill and his sister needed someone familiar with the business who could also clean and repair hats. Eventually, the sister let Cotton take over the payments, and by 1953, Cotton had taken possession of the business free and clear.

ollage of photographs of three wooden implements used in Cotton's shop: a hat block, flange and stand, 1950s. The hat block has distinctive grooves indicating it was used to block fedoras.

The 1950s were a good decade for Cotton’s business. Throughout the decade, Cotton had a steady stream of customers who brought in hats that had to be kept in good condition and shoes that needed shining. As Cotton related in a 1996 interview, his hat shop enjoyed a “lot of traffic,” as well as a reliable clientele of businessmen visiting from out of town, whose “proper dress wear” required a “hat, shirt, and tie.”
 
However, the 1960s signaled a dramatic shift in men’s fashion. Though apocryphal, the widespread story that President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address bareheaded nonetheless signaled the beginning of the end for the dress hat. Then, as Cotton remembered, “the hippies came along,” and “stop[ped] wearing hats and started wearing long hair ... and then everyone started going bareheaded.” Though business was never again as good as it had been in the 1950s, Bob’s Hat Shop would remain a fixture in downtown Greensboro for the rest of the century.
 
Photograph of off-white, straw fedora worn in the summer months by Harold Cotton.
The 1960s also saw profound challenges to the system of Jim Crow that had placed hard limits on the freedoms and ambitions of African Americans across the South. On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University staged a sit-in protest at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter less than half a mile away from Bob’s Hat Shop on South Elm Street. The protesters' refusal to obey an unjust law created a disruption so massive that it compelled Woolworth’s to desegregate its southern stores. By the end of 1960 more than 70,000 brave young men and women sat in, faced arrest, and endured violence in their campaign to desegregate hotels, libraries, parks, and lunch counters across the South.
 
Photograph of the the "Greensboro four" on the second day of their sit-in protest at the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina.

While the protests targeting the Woolworth’s down the street were escalating, an African American Marine walked into Bob’s Hat Shop and asked for a shine. In that moment, with history being made up the street, Cotton made the decision to desegregate his store. He told the soldier to have a seatin one of the chairs reserved for white customers only. After his customer paid the bill and left, Cotton turned to an understandably stunned friend and announced that “from now on anybody that comes in here can get on the stand. I don’t care whether they close us up or not.” To desegregate his store in 1960, when the successes of the civil rights movement were still uncertain, took considerable courage. The landscape of the past is studded with the graves of men and women who had similarly challenged Jim Crow.

Photograph of the section of the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter that is part of the museum's collection and is currently on display on the museum floo

Not all of Cotton’s contributions to the cause of African American civil rights were as dramatic as his decision to desegregate his shop. In the era of Jim Crow, segregation often meant that African Americans were taxed to build parks they could not play in, pools they could not swim in, and schools their children could not attend. Though there were segregated schools black students could attend across the South, these were underfunded, overcrowded, and would be closed as needed in the event of a shortfall in the annual budget. If African Americans wanted any of these things for their own communities, they had to pay for it themselves. That is, after paying taxes for all the amenities that white people enjoyed but they themselves were barred from using, black communities taxed themselves again. They used these “second taxes” to build their own schools, their own parks, their own playgrounds.  
 
Over the course of the next half century, Cotton also paid his “second taxes.” The profits from Bob’s Hat Shop helped sustain many of the the institutions of the local black community: St. Stephen's United Church of Christ, the local black Boy Scout troop, the Dudley High School Alumni Association, and the Greensboro branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Contributions like these from thousands of black business owners paid for textbooks, teachers’ salaries, even the coal used to heat schoolrooms in winter. Their contribution meant the difference between literacy and illiteracy for millions of African Americans.
 
Scanned image of the James B. Dudley High School's 60th Anniversary Jubilee program, with a historical photo of the school on the program's front and a photograph of Harold Cotton, as well as his message of congratulations, on the program's interior.

The bedrock of the local economy of African American communities in towns like Greensboro comprised of small business owners and entrepreneurs like Robert Taylor and Harold Cotton. The overlooked and unseen labor of the black proprietors of hat shops, beauty salons, funeral parlors, photography studios, barbershops, and other businesses performed the yeoman’s work of sustaining the African American community through the decades of Jim Crow.

Harold Cotton's story is one of two biographies featured in Black Main Street: Funding Civil Rights in Jim Crow America, a temporary display within the American Enterprise exhibition's "New Perspectives" case, on view from September 16, 2016 through March 8, 2017.

Jay Driskell is a historian of the urbanizing, segregating South. He is the author of Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics. 

Author(s): 
Jay Driskell
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - 02:30
Topic
American History
National Museum of American History
Creator
National Museum of American History
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Published Date
Mon, 17 Oct 2016 15:03:35 +0000
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