“For an appetizing meal or snack, visit a Woolworth’s lunch department.”
This was a familiar advertisement readers would see in their daily 1950s newspaper. However, it was known that this invitation did not extend to everybody. In 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T State College were refused service at Woolworth’s all-white lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, because of their race.
When asked to leave, they refused, and their sitin demonstration sparked a nationwide protest that would be felt in segregated spaces all over the county — even here in Downtown Orlando.
Although many sit-ins were organized by college students, high-school students in groups like the Liberal Religious Youth Group and the NAACP Youth Council, with the support of well-respected black leaders, were often the main organizers. With several boycott protests already successfully held in places like the Big Apple City Market, Winn-Dixie and Publix, the effort to fight segregation made its way downtown.
On March 5, 1960, two demonstrations were carried out simultaneously by black Orlandoans. Around 11:30 a.m., six youths entered S.H. Kress Co. on 122 S. Orange Ave., and six others entered F.W. Woolworth Co. directly across the street. Both groups quietly sat on stools at the lunch counter but were denied service, as the store personnel chose to close upon the demonstrators’ arrival.
Both demonstrations were carried out without violence.
Several days later, on March 9, about 35 students went back to these two stores, in addition to McCrory’s, to again protest their segregationist practices. Like before, the lunch counters were closed upon their arrival and reopened shortly after their leaving.
Demonstrations continued until September when some Downtown Orlando merchants agreed to open their lunch counters to black patrons during prearranged hours. This decision was not well received by the city’s White Citizen’s Council, as they threatened to boycott the stores who implemented this policy.
Nonetheless, it happened. Although this was a step toward equality, progress was slow, as, several years later, black citizens were still working to desegregate downtown businesses.
On March 9, 1962, 11 Black students were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct for simply refusing to vacate the white lunch counter during a peaceful sit-in demonstration at Stroud’s Rexall Drugstore on Orange Avenue and Church Street. They spent that night in jail and were held on bail of $250 each.
The black community gathered the money for the students to be released the following morning. It was clear by the persistent actions of these students that they were not content staying on the sidelines in this fight. Their pursuit for equality proved to be effective: On June 6, 1963, Orlando Mayor Bob Carr announced during a speech that chain and drug-store lunch counters in Downtown were to be integrated, as well as some other public spaces. This sit-in movement, although small compared to other cities, was instrumental in paving the way for future civil rights victories in Orlando.
Whitney Barrett is the Archivist at the Orange County Regional History Center.