Perhaps this lack of precedent explains the bewildered reaction of the management of W.T. Grant. At the time, the assistant manager was in charge at the time of the demonstration. Not knowing what to do, she called store manager George Walter, who was at home sick in bed with the flu. He dressed and came into work, choosing to make no official statement except to say that he had contacted corporate headquarters. The demonstration was relatively quiet until school hours were over and then a number of teenagers, presumably high school students, gathered at the store. The manager then decided to close the counter and the store at around 5 p.m., thirty minutes earlier than usual.

By the next morning, all seats had been removed from the stools, and the luncheonette itself was surrounded by rope; its lights too had been turned off. Signs appeared every two or three feet down the length of the counter: “Temporarily Closed To All Customers." Nevertheless, approximately thirty demonstrators, all African American, entered the store and marched two-by-two up to the roped-off area. They stood right outside the luncheonette, reading books, studying, and talking quietly. As the day progressed, however, the demonstrations became increasingly confrontational, particularly outside, where around fifty African Americans were on one side of the street, and even more whites on the other. Officers were sent to keep order. By 4 p.m., store manager George Walter had had enough and closed the store. That marked the end of the demonstrations. For now, the lunch counter was going to remain closed. Since W.T. Grant did not officially request the police to arrest or even remove the demonstrators, no one was arrested in Elizabeth City; elsewhere, that was not the case, and over 100 students were arrested in North Carolina during the 1960 demonstrations. That said, in March 1960 the store was expecting additional trouble and would “act on orders from [the] New York office" if the demonstrations started up again. By this point, the North Carolina Council on Human Relations was already encouraging store managers to open up the counters for all customers.

North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges opposed the demonstrations, nothing that he had "no sympathy whatsoever for any group of people who deliberately engage in activities which any reasonable person can see will result in a breakdown of law and order as well as interference with the normal and proper operation of a private business." Concerned, he sent a letter to the presidents of the state’s public colleges and universities, asking them how they handled student demonstrations. One was sent to Elizabeth City State Teachers College president Walter N. Ridley. When he did not respond, the governor wrote him again.  After expressing regrets for his failure to reply, Ridley said, "Our efforts have been to function in the best interest of our students and the State of North Carolina in the maintenance of a peaceful and sober relationship with the community and with the students of our College. This, it seems, we have been able to do." Ridley shared no specific details regarding student protests. The chair of the Elizabeth City State Board of Trustees told Hodges that "My information is that things are quiet and I hope to improve. The newspapers have been kind enough to leave us alone."

Adapted from an essay submitted with historical marker application by Glen Bowman

Image: W.T. Grant Co. lunch counter exterior, courtesy of Elizabeth City State University Twitter page, @escu 

"LUNCH COUNTER DEMONSTRATIONS March 1960.” Document found in Governor’s Papers, Luther Hartwell Hodges, Box 522, General Correspondence, 1960
"Lunch counters to stay closed," April 27, 1960, Associated Press Box 523, General Correspondence, Hodges, 1960
Gonder, Richard J. "Counter Sitdowns Reach Area.” Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk) clipping
Harry S. Jones to Managers of Stores Affected by the Current Lunch Counter Controversy, March 11, 1960
Junius W. Davis to Governor Luther H. Hodges, March 31, 1960. Governor’s Papers, Luther Hartwell Hodges, Box 523, General Correspondence, 1960
No author, "LUNCH COUNTER DEMONSTRATIONS March 1960.” Governor’s Papers, Luther Hartwell Hodges, Box 522, General Correspondence, 1960
Walter N. Ridley to Governor Luther H. Hodges, April 1, 1960. Governor’s Papers, Luther Hartwell Hodges, Box 523, General Correspondence, 1960
Hurdle, Eugene. "Counter Suspended After Group Visits.” Daily Advance, February 12, 1960.
Jones, John W. "February 11th, 1960.” State Teachers College Newsletter 21, no. 1 (March 1960): 2.
Jordan, Ida Kay. “Sit-ins Were Students’ Part in Movement” Virginian-Pilot, February 28, 1991.
No author, "Return Visit." Daily Advance, February 12, 1960.
No author, "Grant Store Is Closed Early As Crowd Collects." Daily Advance, February 13, 1960.  
No author, "W. T. Grant Stores in Seaport Town begin serving Negroes,” Carolina Times, July 23, 1960.
No author, "Delegation Asks Council to hire Negro Policeman,” Daily Advance, February 9, 1960. 
No author, “Leander Respass New Policeman,” Daily Advance, April 15, 1963. 
Ponder, Reggie. “Elizabeth City State students led protest at downtown lunch counter,” Daily Advance, February 18, 2020.  

This page was last modified on 01/13/2023