The Launching of the Student Sit-In Movement: The Role of Black Women at Bennett College

Article excerpt

This essay explores the involvement of the women of Bennett College in the student-led sit-in movement that was launched in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960. On 24 February 2003, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole at a book talk at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with co-author Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall of Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African American Communities, mentioned that there has been very little research on the women of Bennett College who participated in the student-led sit-ins in the early 1960s. (1) This essay will examine the student participants in the movement and the theories of organization that help to provide explanations for these protest activities. Within the context of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, background information on the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, will be presented. In addition, the significance and impact of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in general and the student-led sit-ins in particular on the evolving social consciousness in the African American community will be assessed. (2)

When the United States Supreme Court made its unanimous ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case on 17 May 1954, legal segregation in public education became unconstitutional, overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. (3) Civil Rights attorney Constance Baker Motley in Equal Justice Under the Law: An Autobiography, declared that the Brown decision "ushered in the greatest period of social upheaval since the Civil War" as the hopes and expectations of thousands of southern African Americans in particular were raised. (4) Expectations centered on the elimination of all Jim Crow practices because many believed that this would allow African Americans to enjoy the full rights and privileges of their U.S. citizenship. The launching of the Greensboro student-led sit-ins in 1960 represented a new phase in the social upheavals associated with the Civil Rights Movement.

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA

On 1 February 1960, four male North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (NCA & T) students walked into the F. W. Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, "purchased school supplies and sundry items," then proceeded to the lunch counter and took seats to wait for service. (5) The act of taking a seat at the lunch counter and requesting service represented an act of defiance aimed at the South's Jim Crow laws and practices that defined the nature of social interactions between whites and African Americans in the South. (6) The city of Greensboro was established as the county seat of Guilford County in 1808, and was "a center of antislavery activity, a way station of the Underground Railroad, and a gathering place for Quakers." (7) Also considered a city of the "New South," Greensboro was considered by some to be "free of old prejudices and ideally prepared to lead the region toward new levels of prosperity and enlightenment." (8) Therefore, given its reputation, there was the expectation among African Americans that following the Brown decision there would be little difficulty in the movement towards desegregating the schools and other public facilities. Unfortunately, it was not until 1971 that the Greensboro public school system was desegregated. (9)

By 1960 Greensboro was home to five colleges; two HBCUs and three traditionally white institutions (TWIs). (10) The two HBCUs were Bennett College, a private college for women, and NCA & T, a public, coeducational institution. Bennett College was founded under the auspices of the Methodist Church, initially for the purpose of educating male and female students. Bennett first accepted students for collegiate study in 1920, forty-seven years after its founding, and in 1926 began admitting only female students. Among the more than one hundred HBCUs, only four were dedicated solely to the education of African American women. …