Virginia Williams celebrated her eightieth birthday this year. She also quietly celebrated another milestone. June 23 was the sixtieth anniversary of the Royal Ice Cream sit-in, where Williams and six other African Americans demanded to be served inside the segregated Royal Ice Cream Parlor in north Durham and were arrested for it.
A historical marker at the corner of Roxboro and Dowd streets, where Union Independent School now sits, commemorates the 1957 sit-in, which is often overlooked in the narrative about civil rights demonstrations in North Carolina. The Woolworth's sit-in in Greensboro, which took place almost three years later, casts a long shadow. But the Royal sit-in, the first civil rights demonstration in Durham to result in arrests, was equally important for what it set in motion.
In the fifties, when the Royal enjoyed packed lines after Sunday church services, two doors delineated who would be served where. On Roxboro, a "whites only" door opened into a parlor with a long counter and cozy booths. Around the corner, on Dowd, black customers ordered to-go from the back. Williams recalls that white customers would drive in from other parts of Durham to visit the shop, while the black children ran over from their homes across the street.
"It sat in the heart of the colored community," Williams says. "They were in our area, taking our money. The dollars were green, just like theirs. But we couldn't sit in there."
In May 1957, Williams, who had moved to Durham from rural Northampton County a year prior to take a food service job at Duke Medical Center, attended a meeting for young black people at the Southeastern Business College on Venable Street. The meeting's frank political discussion was a revelation to someone for whom activism had always been a more furtive affair.
"We lived on farms owned by white people," she says. "On Sundays, grown men dressed up and quietly left the house. My mother knew, but she didn't tell us. I realized then that everybody's father was slipping off to these NAACP meetings."
Williams had never heard of a sit-in but felt compelled to participate. The group met again on June 23 and settled on a nonviolent demonstration at Royal. The details were loosely planned.
"We could have gone anywhere in Durham, but that is where we flocked on Sunday afternoons," Williams says.
At about six forty-five p.m., the participants spread out across the shop while the waiter asked them, one by one, to leave. And one by one, Williams and her group—Mary Clyburn, Vivian Jones, Claude Glenn, Jesse Gray, and Melvin Willis—refused.
"By that time, the children of north Durham were at the windows peeping in," Williams says. "This was the 'hood, so the black children were walking over and looking." Eventually, the manager called the police. The cops arrested the seven for trespassing. The next day, they were charged. There was an all-white-jury trial, and each defendant was found guilty and fined. Their lawyers appealed. The N.C. Supreme Court upheld the law regarding segregated facilities. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The sit-in didn't garner much publicity. Williams recalls that it was a quiet summer and most students from the nearby colleges were out of town. Historians and community members attribute it to timing; sit-ins in the South weren't rampant at that moment. In her book Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina, Christina Greene explores another reason: the tensions the Royal sit-in unleashed in the black community. She documents a schism in sentiments about radical tactics.
"Mary Clyburn, who hid her involvement in the sit-in for many years, remembered the 'ugly faces' of blacks looking 'madder than the white folks,'" Green writes.
Even though the sit-in failed to make headlines, it nonetheless generated urgency among some black activists. According to Greene, "it did point black Durham toward the community-based black boycotts and direct action protests of the sixties." These included regular picket lines outside the ice cream parlor, where participants were largely high school age and nearly half were women.
Among the leading organizers was Floyd McKissick, whose legacy includes being the first African American admitted to UNC's law school. His son, state senator and local lawyer Floyd McKissick Jr., was four years old at the time of the Royal sit-in. The McKissick family lived off Corporation Street, just two blocks from the parlor. They were one of the first African-American families to own a home in a white neighborhood in Durham, McKissick says.
"After school desegregation began in 1959, things were heightened in terms of awareness and sensitivity, and it's when we received the highest amounts of threats," he says. "Phone calls threatening to bomb the house. We actually would have people sitting on our front porch from dusk to dawn with shotguns to provide protection."
McKissick points out that the progress made over the last sixty years won't necessarily continue. Vigilance is required.
"The thing we cannot do today is become complacent," he says. "There's a strategic effort being made today by those who would like to see the Supreme Court reverse the progress we've made, to suppress votes. We have demographics on our side, due to the browning of America, but we need to be careful."
Williams echoes the sentiment. "Don't come in and expect to be sitting at the head of the table," she says. "Put in the work. We still have a lot of work to do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Battle Royal"