On Feb. 28, 1960, nine students from the all-Black Lincoln High School held a sit-in at the Colonial Drug Store, which was only open to white customers — an action that would facilitate future civil rights activism in Chapel Hill.
On Thursday, 405 W. Franklin St., the former location of the drug store, was dedicated to honor the students' courage, followed by a community celebration at First Baptist Church put on by the Lincoln High School Alumni Association. Next year, on the 60th anniversary of the sit-ins, a permanent marker will be placed at the site.
“The significance of this marker is this is meant to recognize a more complete history of Chapel Hill and really of the South,” said Chapel Hill Town Council member Allen Buansi. “... I think what folks can learn from it is that you’re never too young to make a difference.”
The idea to delve deeper into celebrating and commemorating the Town’s civil rights history started when Danita Mason-Hogans, a daughter of one of the Chapel Hill Nine, met with Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger. Hemminger created the Historic Civil Rights Commemorations Task Force in 2017 to invite members of the community to share their stories and memories.
Mason-Hogans said prior to this, there was nothing in Chapel Hill that commemorated the youth movement of the 1960s, and the Town recognized the need for one.
“The objective of that task force was to create a timeline that identified people, places and events significant to the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill,” Buansi said.
The council accepted the proposal for the marker, and the Opening Our Future timeline was introduced to the public in November 2018. The timeline allows Chapel Hill community history projects where residents can share their stories or memories of the time period.
They have also made civil rights trading cards with facts about the local movement, available to all K-12 Chapel Hill and Carrboro schools for classroom use.
Buansi said there will be a commemoration service for Harold Foster, the organizer of the Chapel Hill Nine, this spring.
Mason-Hogans said her work centers on critical oral history methodology, and placed the civil rights veterans in the the center of the research.
“We came up with a whole new methodology which paired the activists' memory with primary source documents,” Mason-Hogans said.
Mason-Hogans said the sit-in was not just a group of high school kids messing around, or some spontaneous event. It was carefully designed and implemented, and potentially one of the first sit-ins planned solely by high school students, she said.
“Many of them did the sit-ins either without their parents' permission or against their parents' permission, so not only were they defying the social order at the time, but they were also defying their parents,” said Buansi. “... They are risking their lives in doing it and yet they did it, they made the call to do it because they saw themselves in the service of a broader mission to bring our society closer together to make their society equitable.”
The Chapel Hill Nine’s decision to do the the sit-in still affects members of the community today. Buansi said as an African-American man, he would not be in his current position in the Town without their work.
Both Mason-Hogans and Buansi hope the marker inspires people to stand up for change and come together to facilitate it.
“There’s an old saying, and too many of our children have been told this: ‘You didn’t come from nothing and you ain’t gonna be nothing.' So it’s very important to inspire young people to know they did come from something,” Mason-Hogans said. “They came from a community of people who were determined to make sure that the right thing was done in Chapel Hill.”
Coretta Sharpless, principal of Northside Elementary School, said the school is encouraging students to share their voices and be proud of their history through initiatives such as a woven art project. School faculty held up the project outside the church during the commemoration event as people walked in.
“The more that we empower our young to be able to speak to social justice, to be able to speak to inequalities, to be able to lift their voices around things that are important to them, it then gives us hope and empowerment for a brighter tomorrow,” Sharpless said.
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