Bennett College students played key role in Greensboro sit-ins

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WNCN) — On February 1, 1960, four African-American students from North Carolina A & T  University sat down at the whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, were denied service, but refused to leave until closing.

Today, we know them as the Greensboro Four.

But, what you might not know is that the next day, students from Bennett College, a historically black college for women, joined them.

Those students are known as  Bennett Belles.RELATED: More stories from the North Carolina Hidden History special

The sit-ins grabbed national headlines and eventually led to the desegregation of lunch counters at Woolworth stores.

Two former Bennett College  students who were part of the Greensboro sit-ins explained how it all happened during a meeting at the old Woolworth’s lunch counter, now part of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

“When you had to go inside and pull the shades until the Ku Klux Klan finished going through. Living under the laws of Jim Crow you didn’t have a voice,” said Emma Washington, an alumnus of Bennett College.

Bennett College students Emma Washington and Dr. Linda Brown were going to be heard.

They, along with other Bennett Belles and N.C. A&T students collaborated to put a stop to segregation.

“People were very much socially aware that things were moving in the country,” Brown said.

Students from A&T, including the Greensboro Four, attended NAACP student chapter meetings at Bennett College and it was there in the fall of 1959 that they formulated their plan.

“We were not stupid about what we were doing. Young, yes, and probably not as scared as we should have been,” Brown said.

But they knew the sit-ins had to be done.

“I had ridden the back of the bus. I had gone downtown for the white and colored fountains,” Washington said.

Talk of their planned sit-in spread throughout the campuses. And on February 1st, 1960 the four African-American students from A&T sat down at the whites-only lunch counter.

Bennett Belles were spotters, watching from the store.

The next day, Bennett students also sat-in.

Brown went the third day.

“It was a knee-jerk decision,” Brown said.

“Someone said to me, ‘We’re going downtown, are you going with us?’ I didn’t think about it. I didn’t hesitate. I just said, ‘oh yeah’,” Brown added.

When the Bennett students sat down, the workers at the lunch counter said: “We don’t serve you all. You know we don’t serve you all,” Brown recalled.

“Sometimes there were people sitting at the counter. They’d just mumble stuff and they would get up and leave,” Washington added.

At times the situation became tense.

“Sometimes the police would just stand behind you with their sticks and hit their hand like that. One time I thought, what am I going to do if he hits me with it,” Washington said.

“We were supposed to be reading. We were not reading,” Brown said.

“There was a waitress with a tray of knives who walked by us” and  Brown said the knives were shaking.

The waitress was more nervous than they were.

“They were scared of us and we were nervous of them,” Brown said.

The Bennett students, in groups of five, went in shifts but never missed class.

When their shift was over, others filled in.

“There were five people behind us waiting to sit down and take our place,” Brown said.

Bennett College President Dr. Willa Beatrice Player, known for her activism in the civil rights moment, encouraged and supported her students.

She resisted pressure from other local leaders to stop the demonstrations.

She explained in an interview with the Greensboro News & Record years after desegregation.

“They were being denied their equal rights both under the law and under their constitutional beliefs, and freedom of expression and that I defended them. What they were doing was not inconsistent with this and that I supported it,” Player told the newspaper.

Player made sure the sit-ins were structured and there were rules. One rule was that participants had to buy something at the store before sitting at the counter.

After a few days, their safety became a concern as more and more white people showed up. The Bennett Belles were then required  to take training sessions for non-violent participation.

“How do you think you will react if someone spat on you or someone came and stepped on your shoes,” Washington said.

Not only did they sit at the diner, but they also picketed outside.

They were trained to deal with taunting.

“You held your sign, you walked the picket line and you looked straight ahead,” Washington said.

“I had the experience of hecklers. Young white guys in cars riding down Elm Street, and they were spitting and yelling obscenities,” Brown said.

Over the next few months about 250 Bennett Belles were arrested.

Parents received Western Union telegrams like one in which Player wrote: “Your daughter is among student demonstrators who refused bond and accepted arrest.”

While incarcerated, Player made sure the Bennett Belles didn’t fall behind in their studies.

“She collected your assignments, and she brought it and when you finished she came to pick it up,” Washington said.

“My parents were afraid,” she added. “What my mother said to me was, ‘OK, if you’re going to do this then be sure to say your prayers before you go, because we’ll be praying for you’. “

These trailblazers, the Bennett Belles and other students, were heard.

Woolworth lunch counters integrated on July 25, 1960.

“It was like my living has not been in vain. It was all worth it,” Washington said.

The last time Washington was inside a Woolworth store diner was shortly after it was integrated the fall of 1960.

“Today, for me it was like wow! This is strange. This is weird,” Washington said in the museum where the lunch counter is now kept.

“That moment I knew I was going to participate, was a moment of my spiritual growth. I knew that from that moment on, I was going to move on,” Washington said.

Similar protests followed in towns across the south.

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