“The Forgotten 29”– The Sit-in Movement in New Bern

This is part 3 of my Black History Month look at artifacts from the National Museum of African American History & Culture that speak to North Carolina’s coastal history.

Courtesy, National Museum of African American History & Culture

As I explored the collections at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, another reminder of home was a set of stools from the F. W. Woolworth counter in Greensboro, N.C. The sit-in movement of the 1960s ignited at that lunch counter on February 1, 1960, when four students from N.C. A&T sat down at the “whites only” counter and refused to leave until they were served.

Beginning in Greensboro, the sit-in movement spread across North Carolina and the rest of the southern states. Some of the first towns where young people organized sit-ins were New Bern and Elizabeth City, two towns on the North Carolina coast.

The sit-ins in New Bern began on March 17, 1960.

Led by the Rev. Willie Hickman and the Rev. Leon “Buckshot” Nixon, a group of 29 African Americans, mainly high school students, came in the front doors of two downtown businesses, the Kress Department Store and Bob Clark’s Drug Store, and sat down at the lunch counters.

At that time, local Jim Crow rules required black customers to purchase sandwiches and sodas at the back door and take them “to go.” They could not sit at a lunch counter without being arrested.

Of course, everything in New Bern was separate in those days: waiting rooms, bathrooms, schools, libraries, hospitals, churches, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, ball games, beauty parlors, buses and trains– everything.

So when the ministers and high school students sat down at those lunch counters, everyone in New Bern, black and white, understood that it wasn’t just about the right to get a cup of coffee or a pimiento cheese sandwich.

It was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow in New Bern.

At a gathering at Craven Community College a few years ago, a student named Serena Fulcher described the first sit-in.

“They were bringing books and Bibles and sitting at the lunch counter, asking to be served,” she said.

The store managers refused to serve them and asked them to leave. When the students refused, the managers closed the lunch counters. Police eventually arrested the “Forgotten 29,” but it was the start of a protest movement that eventually led to the desegregation of the town’s downtown businesses.

After eight months of protests and an economic boycott, the Kress Dept. Store finally desegregated its lunch counter in October 1960.

Other New Bern businesses were slower to welcome black customers. For years to come, local civil rights activists continued to stage sit-ins, organize boycotts and file lawsuits.

The last holdout, Moore’s BBQ restaurant, never did allow black customers to sit with their white neighbors: instead, John Moore, the owner, bulldozed the restaurant in 1967, after a federal court ordered him to integrate his business.

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