COLUMBIA, SC — If you were a black student protesting the segregation of Columbia’s downtown lunch counters in the 1960s, you could count on two things: the steely silence of whites and a hungry stomach.
No matter how many booths or lunch counter stools students occupied, no matter how many orders for hamburgers and Cokes they tried to place, the waitresses would just pass on by.
“My girlfriends and I would do that. We’d just go and sit and we’d be ignored,” Doris Glymph Greene recalled Wednesday. “They would just look at us and keep on. And the other (white) people there would just look at us.”
Greene entered Benedict College in 1959, the daughter of a prominent Columbia builder, and was swept up in a burgeoning movement to end segregation, particularly as it was practiced by merchants in downtown Columbia.
The sit-ins began in March 1960, a little over a month after four young men from North Carolina A&T sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., stirring college students to action throughout the South.
Greene joined hundreds of students who walked from the historically-black campuses of Allen University and Benedict College to take up positions at the drugstore lunch counters. She went on to marry Milton Greene, who gained notoriety when he was arrested with Charles Barr and three others at the Taylor Street Pharmacy for trespassing as they sat at the lunch counter and tried to order food. His case, along with another Columbia case led by protester Simon Bouie, went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It was assumed that the culture would change and that we would be the change makers. We would be the ones who brought on the change,” Doris Greene, a 71-year-old retired educator, said. “There would be, I won’t call it a revolution, an evolution, you know.
“And it was certainly our responsibility when you considered all that was happening at the time, the unrest, our sensibility to the situation living in a segregated society,” she went on. “Knowing you had the skills, knowing you had the ability and the academic training, there had to be a change. The winds had to shift. There was no question in my mind about that.”
With Columbia’s launch of a year-long commemoration of the civil rights year 1963, the recollections of pioneers such as Doris Glymph Greene are becoming more precious to leaders such as Mayor Steve Benjamin, who joined the seven-city initiative.
He wants to gather the stories of those who participated in sit-ins, protests and boycotts of segregated downtown businesses, capturing the flavor of a time that is long gone. Once the barriers began to fall — the sit-ins ended on Aug. 21, 1962, when lunch counters were integrated, “white” and “colored” signs in department stores slowly began to be removed in 1963 — the students moved on with their lives.
Still, they remember the texture and feel of those downtown Columbia days.
‘We would take up all the seats’
Annie S. Hollis was a young Allen University English professor when she would slip into “student clothes,” push a cap down over her forehead and join students in the protest lines. It was a bold move; the Allen administration backed the student movement discreetly, but discouraged faculty from open participation.
“It was the young, crazy teachers who marched,” she said. “We knew (the system) was wrong, and we wanted to show the students we supported them.”
Hollis marched to eradicate the debilitating “colored” signs and to end shopkeepers’ longstanding practice of waiting on white customers first. Some store employees at Tapp’s and Belk were particularly rude to black customers, she recalled, slamming the cages of the elevator doors shut when groups of black students tried to enter.
“We would walk from the campus to the downtown area and we would have decided before leaving which stores we were going to visit on that particular day,” Hollis, 81, said. “And we would carry out our plan to go into, say, McCrory’s five-and-10-cents store. We would take up all the seats. The guys would allow the girls to take all the seats and the guys would stand behind them.”
One time, she recalled, a light-skinned protester from Eastover was taken for a white man and successfully ordered a hamburger. When the meal arrived, he pushed the plate over to a fellow protester who proceeded to eat the hamburger.
She remembers, but cannot locate, a newspaper clipping with the headline, “White man orders hamburger, black man eats it.”
Each protester’s experience was different. Greene, who operated the elevators at Tapp’s during her college years, had a good working experience there and did not recall any effort to restrict black customers’ access. She was most upset that white Columbia College girls were offered summer sales positions, while she remained in the uniform of an elevator operator.
Isaac Washington, a Benedict College student, marched along Main Street, even picketing a car dealership because it would not hire African-Americans in sales positions. He lost his job at the all-white Columbia hospital when his boss discovered he had been arrested at a March 1961 march around the State House.
“She said, ‘Was I going to work or was I going to picket?’” he recalled.
Washington knew the answer and said he never felt fear, even in jail, where he met future Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and other activists. Neither Greene nor Hollis recall any violence during the protests, although there was one bloody incident.
Lennie Glover, a Benedict divinity student, was stabbed March 5, 1961, as he and another student were on a routine check of a Woolworth’s sit-in. He recovered and later returned to the protest line. Black students responded with a boycott, the “Easter Lennie Glover No Buying Campaign,” which hit pragmatic white merchants where it hurt the most — their bottom line.
‘You could not be riled’
Greene and Hollis felt a change was in the air, and it seemed that whites who passed them on the streets knew a way of life was disappearing.
“They really tried to ignore us,” Hollis said. “You could see the anger in their faces but they just really ignored us as if we were not there. At first, I don’t think they took it very seriously.”
Mainly, it seemed everyone wanted the students to go away.
But the pendulum was swinging away from a life the South had orchestrated for 100 years. Enlightened whites knew it, including Columbia Mayor Lester Bates, who worked behind the scenes to ensure the city was desegregated as peacefully as possible.
Greene said she knew leaders were serious in the early 1960s when she was asked, along with other Columbia students, to go to McIntosh, Ga., to participate in a weekend of non-violence training conducted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization headed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Her teachers included Andrew Young, who went on to be ambassador to the UN and mayor of Atlanta, and South Carolina activist Septima Clark.
They traveled in integrated cars until the Georgia border, then got out and rearranged themselves by race and gender, entering the state quietly without drawing notice.
“And when we got there it was dark so the lights were turned off,” she said. “It was a two-story house with beds upstairs and there were students from several states because there was a large meeting room downstairs. There were lectures, there were demonstrations, and all of it was about how to sit-in and how to be nonviolent.
“You could not be riled; we were grilled in that, you know, even to people spitting in your face and hurling racial slurs.”
What resonates, even now 50 years later, was the absolute necessity for caution and secrecy which brought home to her, even at the age of 19 or 20, just how dangerous civil rights work could be.
“The boarded up house, the candlelight, the fact that you didn’t want to draw suspicion, I thought what have I gotten myself into?” she said. “It really registered when I got home and I had a chance to analyze it.”
Still, she went on to work in the civil rights movement, taking on voter registration issues, even as she and her late husband, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, broke down barriers in their professional lives.
“It was what you were called to do,” she said, “and then you went on and did it.”