The Fifth Freshman: Aggies Who Supported the Sit-In Movement

By James R. Stewart / 01/27/2020 Alumni

David Richmond and Joseph McNeil entered the Woolworth’s store on Elm Street in Greensboro. The lives of those four freshmen, faculty and students of then, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, the city of Greensboro and the whole world would never be the same again.

Five months after the four sat down, Woolworth’s and three other local stores agreed to completely desegregate; however, the movement would only continue. Many community leaders, entrepreneurs, faculty, staff, students and alumni played various roles in the events of the 1960 sit-in movement. There are far too many to name, but here are some of their stories.

In November 1959, an A&T alumnus sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter with his youngest daughter. While there was no arrest or controversy, his daring act foretold the coming movement. That brave man was Ezell Blair Sr. ’41, the father of Ezell Blair Jr., one of the A&T Four. On Jan. 31, 1960, Blair Jr., Richmond, McCain and McNeil met at his home where they were encouraged before their actions of the next fateful day.

Ralph “Cuzzin” Johns, a Syrian immigrant who ran a clothing store popular with Aggies, had tried to convince N.C. A&T students for more than a decade to sit at the lunch counters. No one seemed to listen until December 1959, when McNeil entered his shop. McNeil, McCain, Richmond and Blair Jr. would return to John’s shop on Feb. 1 to plan only a few hours before they entered Woolworth’s. Johns was responsible for notifying the local press and Dr. George C. Simkins, dentist, civil rights advocate and NAACP leader, for support and coverage for the four young men.

On Feb. 2, 1960, the four became 16. Some of those participants are still referred to as the “fifth freshmen.” Among them were Lewis Brandon III who kept the movement going throughout the spring and summer. He was instrumental in recruiting Dudley High School students to join their efforts.

Brandon became one of the most active civil rights leaders and historians in Greensboro where he still leads and teaches. On Feb. 1, 2001, he was the first recipient of the N.C. A&T Human Rights Award.

In less than one week, black and white students from Bennett College, Greensboro College, Dudley High School, the Women’s College (now UNCG) and Guilford College had joined the movement. The A&T football team made a memorable impression on counter-protestors. During the first week they formed a wall of protection, at times reciting the Lord’s Prayer while defending white and black sit-in participants.

As the movement grew to include hundreds of students, Edward Pitt became co-chair of the Student Executive Committee for Justice along with Gloria Brown of Bennett College for Women. The movement went beyond Woolworth’s. This committee was originated by the A&T Four. Brandon was a member of this committee along with Wallace Wortham, Clarence Henderson, Billy Smith, Jack Ezell, Bobby Chavis, Sylvia Dean and countless others. Blair Jr. was also president of the A&T NAACP chapter whose members also participated.

The movement also received full support from the A&T Register student newspaper under editor Albert L. Rozier Jr. ‘60. The Feb. 5, 1960 edition of the paper was a four-page tabloid, instead of the usual eight-page layout, devoted almost entirely to the movement. Rozier delivered a speech on the sit-ins at the U.S. National Student Association in Washington, D. C., that April.

Support from the Greensboro community remained strong. The Rev. Otis Hairston Sr., pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, allowed students to use a church mimeograph machine to make sit-in instructions. Hairston Sr. and Simkins were part of the Greensboro Citizens Association. Hairston was the father of longtime A&T photographer and historian Otis Hairston Jr.

Johns contributed editorials to the “Greensboro Champion” newspaper. Waldo C. Falkener was one of the city’s first Black council members and was a communicator between Woolworth’s, the city council and the students. Falkener was the nephew of Epps L. Falkener of A&T’s historic 1899 class.

The sit-in movement was unique since it was led and organized by students and supported by so many college faculty. This was true from the top down at A&T. President Warmoth T. Gibbs initially passed the responsibility of handling the students to William H. Gamble, Dean of Men. When asked his opinion Gamble said, “Let them sit.” Dr. Gibbs later famously said "We teach our students how to think, not what to think." To honor his and First Lady Marece Gibbs’ support of the movement, the SGA presented certificates to them signed by student government president Charles DuBose and Maxine Zachary.

A&T faculty members would ignore attendance so that students could participate. William H. Robinson Jr., poet and English professor, composed a poem, “To the Black Lady Lovers of the Sit-in Demonstrations,” for the A&T Register. When dozens of students were arrested in April, Goldie Hargett (Hargett Funeral Home) and Dr. B. W. Barnes (Barnes Hall) bailed them out of jail.

These are only a few of the great Aggies, friends and supporters who were part of the 1960 sit-in movement. The movement would grow throughout the 1960s and continues and into the present day. Near the end of the decade, E. F. Corbett (Corbett Gym), director of planning and giving, said Aggies who had participated in the sit-ins were more giving and displayed more of the Aggie spirit.

The F. D. Bluford Archives has dozens of collection boxes and vertical files on the Sit-In Movement, the A&T Four, The February One monument and notable faculty and alumni. Our No. 1 most sought-after lost/missing items are complete copies of the Feb. 12, 1960 and March 1960 editions of the A&T Register.

For more information about the sit-ins, please use our Sit-In Movement LibGuide. You can also visit the F.D. Bluford Library Archives and Special Collections or contact us at libraryarchives@ncat.edu.

Media Contact Information: libraryarchives@ncat.edu

All News