A group of Black high school students set off a decade of civil rights demonstrations in Chapel Hill when they sat down in a booth at Colonial Drug Store on Franklin Street on Feb. 28, 1960 and asked to be served.
William Cureton, John Farrington, Harold Foster, Earl Geer, Dave Mason Jr., Clarence Merritt Jr., James Merritt, ‘Clyde’ Douglas Perry and Albert Williams were the young men who became known as the Chapel Hill Nine. 60 years later, the four surviving members of the group attended Friday’s unveiling ceremony of the marker that commemorates their actions during the Civil Rights Movement.
The marker sits at 450 W. Franklin St., which was the location of the Colonial Drug Store. The creation of the marker was the result of work done by the Historical Civil Rights Commemoration Task Force, which Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger formed in 2017 to document the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill.
“We decided we would like to honor brave events and things that help shape us to being a better community,” Hemminger said.
The marker, which was designed by Durham artist Stephen Hayes, has images of the protests and police officers outside of the drugstore, as well as images of news headlines from the time. On both sides of the marker, the names and ages of the Chapel Hill Nine at the time of the sit-in are displayed. According to the Town of Chapel Hill website, the marker was designed to be a fusion of public art and a historical monument.
The 1960 sit-in was inspired by the protest at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro earlier that month. Esphur Foster, sister of Chapel Hill Nine member Harold Foster, spoke at the ceremony and paid homage to the courage the Chapel Hill Nine had as young students.
“When you are 80, as I am now, you realize that actually they were just babies,” she said. “16, 17 and 18 years of age. On Feb. 18, 1960, these babies had the audacity — or as Black folks like to say the nerve — to address a societal norm that had begun for us, the African Americans, in 1619.”
Albert Williams, one of the Chapel Hill Nine and Chapel Hill’s first Black firefighter, said the group’s leader was Harold Foster and likened him to a "hot spark plug." He said the younger students listened to the older students in the group, and they respected each other.
Williams said when they did the initial protest at the drugstore, the group had no idea that an extended period of protests and demonstrations would follow.
“We didn’t have no idea of what was coming," he said. "It broke the dam open, and the water just flowed.”
Some Chapel Hill natives in attendance reminisced of what the atmosphere in the town was like during the decade following the initial sit-in. Michael Foushee, a Chapel Hill native who now lives in Durham, said he was 6 years old during the protests and was part of the Civil Rights Movement growing up.
“I was around people that were in the political arena,” Foushee said. “Therefore I listened, and people gathered around and had speeches, talked about strategies and things of that nature. It was just exciting being a part of the event.”
Clayton Weaver, a Chapel Hill native who was 11 years old during the protests, said he remembered how the African American community in Chapel Hill would frequently patronize the drugstore and how the owner would interact with them.
“He would bring medicine to my home, on his way home,” Weaver said. “People from church would come in on Sunday and get your soda and ice cream. But he wouldn’t let us sit down.”
Weaver said he remembers after the Chapel Hill Nine were removed from the drugstore, the owner would lock the door and protesters would continue sitting outside the store. He said protestors met at St. Joseph’s Church and decided who would march down Franklin Street, and who would sit-in.
Williams said he felt the marker was outstanding, and when anyone does anything to honor him, his attitude is to receive it.
“A personal conviction, right or wrong, there is a way to handle it,” Williams said. “It’s a part of a person’s development. You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in, and respect what other people believe.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.