You may have heard of the four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina who sat at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth's and helped spark the Civil Rights Movement in 1960. Thursday in Chapel Hill, community and town officials are celebrating the Chapel Hill Nine – nine high school students who also sat down, to stand up.
The nine African American teenage boys in Chapel Hill were tight growing up, they even had a club. Clyde Douglas Perry, says they lived close to each other and went to the same Lincoln High School in the segregated town.
“The hospital had a black waiting room and a white waiting room. The bus station was the same thing, a black and white waiting room," said Perry. "I mean, you know, that was the way we were brought up.”
Their lives would soon change forever. Four African-American male college students from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro asked to be served at a Woolworth’s counter on February 1, 1960. Four weeks later, on February 28, the group known as the Chapel Hill Nine, would do the same.
Jim Merritt and the other boys knew the owner of Colonial Drug, John Carswell, and he knew them. They called him "Big John" because he was tall and had big feet.
"We were not strangers, we shopped there or came to his establishment just about every Sunday, if not every day," said Merritt, who was 16-years-old during the sit-in.
Despite the familiarity, Carswell wouldn't tolerate the protesters.
“Big John knew why we were there, I’m sure. He jumped on us right quick, 'Get out, get out,'" said Perry. "Asked Jim, 'Why are you sitting down? Get up, get out.' He didn’t.”
The teenagers all refused to get up from the counter at Colonial Drug. David Mason Jr. was 17-years-old.
“My greatest fear was that I would not be able to restrain myself in case someone would spit on me. I think I could take a punch but I could not take being spit on," said Mason Jr.
The police were called and the nine boys were escorted out of the drug store and later charged with trespassing. And so began acts of civil disobedience in Chapel Hill.
“We are just so proud of our young men who are older men now, very proud of the step they took and how brave they were," said Pam Hemminger, mayor of Chapel Hill.
Hemminger formed a task force in late 2017 to help begin documenting the town’s civil rights history.
Molly Luby is the special projects coordinator at the Chapel Hill Public Library. She helped design an 11-foot-long banner that organizations can borrow from the library to display the town’s civil rights timeline.
“Every time we bring out this timeline and our living members of the Chapel Hill Nine are there, there are standing ovations, these guys are the rock stars of Chapel Hill right now,” said Luby.
There are even Chapel Hill civil rights trading cards featuring photos of civil disobedience and the article in the Chapel Hill News about the Chapel Hill Nine being found guilty of trespassing.
If you ask the four living members of the Chapel Hill Nine if they are heroes, they say no. The men, all in their 70s, say they did what they had to do.
“Our objective was to right a wrong and we were quite determined to do that, no matter what the consequences might be," said Mason.
Albert Williams agrees. He was 16-years-old during the sit-in.
"I would like to be remembered as a participant who tried to make a change and set an example," said Williams, looking up at the West End Wine Bar.
Colonial Drug is no longer a business in the 400 block of West Franklin Street. The spot where the Chapel Hill Nine took a seat, is now the West End Wine Bar. Three of the four men said they hadn’t visited the site in 50 years or more, vowing to never come back after being turned away.
The group rattled off several of the black-owned businesses no longer on West Franklin Street, like Weaver Shoe Shop, Bo-Bo the Tailor, the Hollywood Grille and a taxi stand.
But the men may decide to visit the block more frequently. A crowd is expected today (February 28, 2019) to celebrate where a Chapel Hill Nine marker will be erected. One suggestion is a bench, so they can sit down.
The Chapel Hill Nine include: William Cureton, John Farrington, Harold Foster, Earl Geer, David "Dave" Mason, Jr., Clarence Merritt, Jr., James "Jim" Merritt, Clyde Douglas Perry and Albert Williams.