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Marker to commemorate civil rights activists approved by Town Council


UNC students in 1960 stand in front of a restaurant during the time of the Howard Johnson Sitdown Action protest. Photo by Charlie Blumenthal.

Fifty-eight years after the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill, the Town Council accepted a proposal to commemorate the event and figures who played a key role in the first Chapel Hill sit-in.

On Feb. 28, 1960, nine black students from Lincoln High School staged a sit-in at Colonial Drug store on Franklin Street. They were inspired by the well-known sit-in by the “Greensboro Four” a month earlier.

Their peaceful protest inspired many more civil rights activists in Chapel Hill over the following years. 

Danita Mason-Hogans, a daughter of one of the students and a member of the Town subcommittee that created the proposal, said these high-schoolers, known as the Chapel Hill Nine, have been at the margins of discussions about the Civil Rights Movement.

“We felt that the Chapel Hill Nine and specifically the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill had been kind of overshadowed by a lot of the work that had been done by UNC students," Mason-Hogans said. "But it was sparked by those nine high school students.” 

Consisting of scholars, relatives of the Chapel Hill Nine and members of relevant local organizations, the subcommittee's job was to establish the specifics of the protest and the appropriate way to memorialize it. 

In 2017, Mayor Pam Hemminger founded the Council Task Force on Historic Civil Rights Commemorations to better understand the history of the local Civil Rights Movement. The appointed subcommittee was tasked to researching and commemorating the Chapel Hill Nine.

They interviewed surviving members of the Chapel Hill Nine, reviewed decades-old interviews with them, consulted contemporary news articles and resolved these sometimes divergent sources into a clear picture of what happened in the town nearly 60 years ago.

Mason-Hogans said the subcommittee's research contradicted the general perception of local civil rights activists, like the Chapel Hill Nine, whom she said were perceived as spontaneous and disorganized.

“These were high school students who had thought about it and planned in the cafeteria," she said.

The subcommittee's report is only a recommendation, and specific plans will have to be finalized later. Town Council Member Allen Buansi said he was excited about the recommendation.

"I’ve said before too that I frankly feel that I wouldn’t be on Chapel Hill Town Council had it not been for the sacrifices and the courage of those Chapel Hill Nine," Buansi said. "So I’m really excited about it."

He said he hopes the marker will encourage Town residents to learn more about the history.

"Hopefully it will be something that will leave an impression on folks," Buansi said. "I talked about how it would be great if the marker was elevated so that folks could see it at eye level and couldn’t miss it." 

The proposal will go to the designated Town staff so the exact form of the marker can be finalized.

The unveiling is also under discussion. To make sure the marker is well-done and does not interfere with regulations or Town streetscape plans, the dedication of the site may be pushed back to this coming Feb. 28, which is the anniversary of the sit-in.

The council recommended that it be placed in front of the West End Wine Bar.

The marker is expected to be completed one year after its dedication.


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