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WUNC reports from Greensboro about Guilford County and surrounding area.

Museum Honoring Greensboro Four Celebrates 10 Years

Naomi Prioleau
The International Civil Rights Center and Museum opened 10 years ago to honor the four NC A&T students who held a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth's department store where the museum is now located.

Sixty years ago, four North Carolina A&T State University students walked into the Woolworth's Department Store in downtown Greensboro.

Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Jibreel Khazan, and David Richmond staged a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter, launching a movement that spread across the south.

Decades after Woolworth's closed, the building was acquired by Earl Jones and Melvin "Skip" Alston, who later became the co-founders of the now International Civil Rights Center and  Museum. The museum opened on February 1, 2010 and is now celebrating its 10 year anniversary.

CEO John Swaine described the decade since the museum first opened its doors as "tough."

"We opened in 2010 at the bottom end of the economic downturn of 2008, 2009," Swaine said. "There was little support behind the museum to help move it on through those difficult years."

The museum faced financial issues almost immediately upon opening. In 2013, the city of Greensboro approved a $1.5 million forgivable loan for the museum. That meants the city would forgive a dollar for every dollar the museum raised.

Credit Naomi Prioleau / WUNC
The International Civil Rights Center and Museum celebrates its 10 year anniversary. Its anniversary is also the same day that the Greensboro Four sat at a segregated lunch counter in the Woolworth department store.

The following year, city officials considered taking over the museum due to financial issues.

"In the museum's auditors reports, the auditor raised questions about the ability of the museum to continue indefinitely, so there were definitely concerns about the ongoing viability of the museum," said City Councilman Justin Outling.

The museum improved its financial situation through telethons, donations and grants. By 2016, the museum turned a corner, thanks - in part - to an 11,000-visitor increase from the previous year.

By 2018, the museum retired its debt to the city. 

Now Swaine can look ahead to the next decade. His goals are to hire more employees, create an endowment, and expand the building. He said the museum brings legitimacy to the city.

"When the outside world looks in and sees how the community deals with some very tough issues, and we have a world class asset sitting here in the middle of this town, I'd say it bodes well for the city and the community," Swaine said.

The annual gala, to be held this Saturday on the 60th Anniversary of the Greensboro Four, helps with some expenses. It usually brings in between $150,000 and $300,000 for the museum; Swaine hopes to bring in more revenue through grants and sponsorships. 

He added that the museum will continue to  stay relevant because people of every age have their reasons for visiting.

"The older generation, it's a place to heal, a place to reflect," he said. "The middle generation, to consider how things really were and for our younger generation, they come into learn."

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