Sit-In Demonstrations Challenge Huntington’s Racial Status Quo

Sit-In Demonstrations Challenge Huntington’s Racial Status Quo

Isaac McKown

During the high point of the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, West Virginia’s Governor W. W. Barron had the opportunity to end discrimination in public establishments. Civil Rights activists held a protest at a meeting of state governors in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia on August 19, 1963 where Barron met the protestors and promised an executive order banning racial discrimination.1 Despite having all appearances of supporting the Civil Rights movement, his words were never backed up with action. An executive order banning discrimination in public places never came; instead, it avoided the topic altogether, aiming “chiefly at barring racial discrimination in hiring by firms doing business with the state.”2 Governor Barron’s attitude, unfortunately, was characteristic of the attitudes of many white West Virginians at the time. People were proud not to be as racist and degrading to blacks as people from Alabama and Mississippi were. At the same time, those same people were comfortable with segregated atmospheres and in no way condemned those who had deep-seated, racist dispositions. While it may have been possible for one to claim to be neutral on the issue, it was no longer possible when the sit-in movement sweeping the South came to Huntington in 1963. Although the sit-in demonstrations did not fix the problem of racism in Huntington, when paired with blatant white-resistance, both forced white and black people to abandon complacency on the issue of Civil Rights and begin to take foundational steps towards resolving racial conflict.

A sit-in is a nonviolent form of protest where demonstrators would occupy seats in an establishment, either in chairs or on the floor, leaving fewer seats for other customers. The result was lost revenue for the business. While many restaurant owners fought back, others integrated their counters to avoid the trouble.3 The sit-ins in Huntington, West Virginia occurred near the end of a much bigger sit-in movement that had spread through the South. Four students instigated a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. Although it received a lot of attention and sparked a movement, it was not the first demonstration of its kind. Sit-ins had occurred at various places and times such as Chicago in 1942, Saint Louis in 1949, and southern states during the late 1950s.4 The sit-in movement made national attention because of the media attention devoted to it and also because of “dozens of cases [that] made their way to the Supreme Court, addressing such issues as equal protection, due process, property rights, and state action.”5 The sit-in cases eventually helped to bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Some of the Huntington sit-ins were happening concurrently with Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963.  This direct action phase of the Civil Rights movement provided the means necessary for people to challenge the status quo and defend their rights.

            Race relations in West Virginia during the early 1960 reflected the fact that West Virginia had been a border state in the Civil War. It was not as infamous as southern states like Alabama, but it was also not a place blacks from the North loved to go. Many establishments were brazenly segregated and the general white public either accepted or promoted this racist mindset. West Virginia was itself divided on the issue. Jo Williams came to Huntington, West Virginia as a black student at Marshall University in 1963. In a personal phone conversation with him, he described how different the atmosphere in Huntington was than that of his West Virginia home in Boone County. He said even when schools were segregated back home, blacks and whites rode the same buses, and he could not recall any major race issues. This was not the case in Huntington. When he first arrived, he and a biracial group of friends went out to eat at a local restaurant. A little while after they sat down, he remembers one of his friends saying they needed to leave because there was going to be trouble. The entire group of friends knew from that moment on that things would be different, and they were. They stopped hanging out and were never as close again.6 This is an example of the kind of pressure that was on people who tried to challenge the status quo.

One of Marshall’s black basketball players, Phil Carter, reflects on this atmosphere in Huntington when talking about black basketball players from other schools coming to play Marshall. “The Mid-American Conference [teams] hated like hell to come here.” Marshall was the southern most of the Mid-American Conference teams, so it made everyone else uncomfortable to be in Huntington. Because Marshall would have to accommodate both black and white athletes coming to Huntington, Marshall’s President played a role in integrating some public establishments.7 Sometimes, however, it was not even true integration. For instance, Floyd Walker of Bailey’s Cafeteria served black athletes, but only after the store had closed to the public.8

Dr. Michael Gray was from a family very active in the Civil Rights movement and took part in several of the demonstrations in Huntington. He was a student as nearby West Virginia State College, but spent a lot of time in Huntington. When reflecting on the racial relations in Huntington, three immediate examples came to his mind. First, there is an old amusement park outside of Huntington called Camden Park. During the early sixties, this was a segregated place with a day put aside once a year for blacks to come to the park if they wished. Second, the Young Men’s Christian Association [emphasis his] was a major establishment in the white community, but blacks were not allowed in. Gray also reprimands Marshall for not recognizing that something had to change and not only failing to lead the way for that change, but in some sense encouraging it. After describing the Greek life on campus as dominating the social sphere, he said, “What occurred every year was a week called ‘Old South Week.’ It was led and driven by one particular fraternity. These folks . . . dressed up in old Confederate uniform [sic] and their corresponding sorority dressed in ante-bellum looking dresses. They engaged in activity that celebrated the South.” While talking about these examples, Gray added, “The fact that you have the powers that be and a major University that tolerated that type of degradation that type of humiliation in the late 1950s and early 1960s tells you all you need to know about what Huntington was about.”9 It was this kind of environment that saturated Huntington and Marshall when a group of Marshall students decided to act.

The sixties sit-in movement was led mostly by college students,10 and the movement in Huntington was no exception. As early as February 1963, there were plans to form a campus group at Marshall University with the purpose of preventing racial discrimination.11 An official announcement was made the next month. They called themselves the Civic Interests Progressives (CIP). This biracial group described three of the group’s aims to the school newspaper, mainly to “remove restrictions limiting the social life of minority groups,” “obtain equal job opportunities for minority groups,” and “eliminate discriminatory practices limiting housing for minority groups.” They then went on to describe the three main methods to achieve these goals – “pursue goals through the appropriate channels existing in Huntington,” “attempt to negotiate with the management of business establishments in which discriminatory practices exists,” and “utilize direct nonviolent action as a means of protesting discriminatory conditions.” The group would mainly target off-campus establishments.12

In describing the white members of the CIP, Michael Gray says “courageous is not a strong enough word.” The number of white students in the CIP, says Gray, “was not even a percentage of the student body. The small percentage of racists that would harass us on the line would always zoom in on the white folk. The whites would have to be willing to take the hit more than we did. There was something about a white racist that couldn’t stand to see other white folk on the line.”13 Bruce Thompson also makes this point when describing how Huntington-native Rick Diehl was an embarrassment to whites in Huntington because he was the son of the owner of one of the two biggest department stores in town. He represented Huntington’s social and economic establishment but became a CIP leader.14 It was conflict like this among Huntington natives and between white activists and racists that made an impact on the community in a way black college student protests alone could not; the conflict became personal very quickly.

While the CIP was a group associated with Marshall University, they were not alone in their activities. They were often supported and accompanied by people from the historically all-black West Virginia State College (WVSC) between Huntington and Charleston. Eventually, there were student activists from Concord, Bluefield, and WVSC claiming membership in the CIP.15 One of the main CIP leaders, Phil Carter, was a black basketball player for Marshall who was very prominent in all of the CIP’s activities.16 This small yet growing core of activists began acting immediately.

By the end of March, the CIP had sent in a report to the campus Human Rights Commission which identified three establishments in Huntington that discriminated against Marshall’s black students: Colonial Bowling Lanes and the restaurants White Pantry and Thabit’s Delicatessen17. The idea was to get the school administration to step in because the racial discrimination was against Marshall’s students.18 Interestingly enough, one of the CIPs first targeted restaurants was Bailey’s Cafeteria, which had not been on their list turned into the Human Rights Commission.19

Bailey’s Cafeteria was one of Huntington’s more popular restaurants among middle and upper class whites. Keeping with their methods, they first and foremost attempted peaceful integration. They tried appealing to the Huntington Human Rights Commission and even pleaded with Bailey’s manager Floyd E. Walker. Walker claimed he could not change his policy because of the potential revenue loss that would ensue because of whites who would stop eating there.20 When the diplomatic approach failed, the CIP acted. Targeting a popular restaurant like Bailey’s was just one more way that the demonstrators could be sure they were driving their point home in a way that could not be shrugged off.

On Thursday evening April 25, 1963, five white students and five black students participated in a share-in at Bailey’s. The white students entered the restaurant first. A little later, the black students entered and, despite being told by Walker that they would not be served, proceeded through the line. They sat down with the white students already there and shared their food.21 Tom Stafford was one of the white students at the share-in and is quoted as saying “The share-in concept is derived from the principles or ideals of justice, brotherhood and love. The share-in experience is the attempt to apply to social practice these ideals.” The same Parthenon article described the students as well-dressed and causing no disturbance.22 This tactic enabled the CIP to protest in a non-violent, legal way and yet have a direct impact on a successful Huntington business.

The next Tuesday, April 30th, they made a second attempt to eat at Bailey’s, and the cafeteria closed early. They tried again the very next day, but this time there were two men barring the door from the black students. Because they could not pull off the share-in, they turned to picketing the restaurant. The next day the cafeteria declared that it would go to court because of the picketing.23 Floyd Walker and his co-owner Sadie Bailey wanted an injunction issued against picketing of Bailey’s Cafeteria with the CIP named as the respondent. The goal was to forbid mass picketing, the unlawful blocking of any entrance or exit, and potential damages. There were a total of eleven students due to appear in court Saturday May 4th.24 25 Herb Henderson represented the CIP before judge Hereford. Attorney Bliss L. Charles represented Walker and Bailey.26

The hearing was delayed at the request of Herb Henderson so that he might have more time to prepare his case. The judge also wanted Bailey’s Cafeteria to amend its petition for injunction as the original was found insufficient. “It showed only conclusions and not facts that a problem warranting the issuance of an injunction actually exists at the cafeteria.”27 The new petition submitted on May 8th brought specific allegations against the demonstrators, mainly concerning actions leading to the loss of customers and therefore profit.28 On Saturday May 11th, Judge Hereford denied the petition for injunction, saying “The only reason this court could grant an injunction would be in event of property damage and violence, and there has been neither in this case.” He also maintained his mindset from the previous Saturday that this was an issue of race, despite the petition reading as an issue of business loss and protection, saying things like “The cafeteria has been my favorite place for years, but if it is a good place for me to eat it also is a good place for Negroes to eat.”29

Picketing had occurred all through this process in court. Bailey’s reached an agreement with the CIP to “abandon its practice of racial segregation after a two-week period of adjustment.”30 In this situation, one sees three distinct perspectives on the situation. The CIP and its supporters were battling segregation. Judge Hereford was a white man in power supporting the CIP as much as possible in the given situation. Most interestingly, one sees the white owners of Bailey’s integrating, but this stemmed mainly from trying to avoid conflict, not supporting Civil Rights.

Although a ruling completely banning racial discrimination would not take place until 1964, Hereford’s decision was supported by a Supreme Court ruling the next week saying that “a state or city may not interfere, in any fashion, with peaceful racial integration sit-in demonstrations in public places of business.”31 This would not be the last time, however, that the CIP would be brought to court. In the middle of the summer, the CIP began a tougher battle with the White Pantry.

The interaction with the White Pantry and its owner Roba Quesenberry was significantly more direct and dangerous for the CIP members than it had been at Bailey’s. It was one of the three establishments in which the CIP reported racial discrimination to the University Human Rights Commission back in March.32 When discussing the White Pantry, Dr. Michael Gray emphasized that it was not the desire to eat there that led the CIP to the White Pantry. The restaurant itself was a hole in the wall that he had passed by most of his life without even knowing its name. However, an incident in the early summer was what brought it to the front of the CIP’s attention. Above one of the shops near the White Pantry was a place one could rent to have dances and parties. One summer weekend there was a dance, and during one of the band’s breaks, a black girl went downstairs to get a drink. The White Pantry was nearby, so she went in to order a drink to go. Whoever was working that night refused to serve the girl, and she told everyone back up at the dance. Such blatant bigotry over something so small is how a restaurant that no one cared about became such a big issue.33

The CIP first tried a share-in as they had at Bailey’s. Twenty-five CIP-led protestors entered the White Pantry on July 13, 1963. The white students were served, the black students were not, and so the white students shared their food. Shockingly, an employee seized every plate a black student touched and shattered it on the floor. The demonstrators quietly exited.34 One quickly sees this perspective on race that was not seen at Bailey’s a couple of months prior. Bailey’s resisted, but the degree of intolerance and bigotry represented by the White Pantry and its employees was so much higher than it had been there. Clearly these actions represent the views of the more racist inhabitants of Huntington at the time.

The White Pantry’s reception of the 2nd demonstration–this time a sit-in–was no less shocking than the first. After demonstrators entered the restaurant, employees began mopping the floor with ammonia, spraying insecticides, and eventually replaced the air conditioning with heat. Demonstrators that had remained outside handed the sit-in participants water soaked handkerchiefs, enabling them to suffer through the fumes for about an hour. Quesenberry proceeded to shut down the restaurant.35 It was also common in later demonstrations for him to light sulfur cakes.36 By resisting so strongly, Quesenberry made the people of Huntington confront the issue of segregation. The sit-ins caught the attention of the city newspaper and the local news station frequently.37 People now had to be able to define their stance on the issues at hand. Did they support the protestors? Did they more closely identify with Bailey’s, wanting integration to avoid conflict and not necessarily because it was right? Or perhaps, did they think Quesenberry was just giving the trouble makers what they were asking for? The City Council proved this was becoming a major community issue when they agreed to create a committee to help the city Civil Rights Commission deal with the worsening problem.38 39 Quesenberry, however, would not negotiate. He was quoted as saying that he would not integrate unless compelled by law to do so.40 The CIP resumed demonstrations, matching his vitriol with a persistence of their own.

Quesenberry changed tactics and began to use the legal system when the demonstrators showed up August 24th for a sit-in. While he still drove out the other sitters with noxious fumes, this time he had two of the participants arrested on trespassing charges with John Doe warrants – Gustavus Cleckly, president of the Huntington branch of the NAACP, and Cicero Fain, a member of the executive board of the CIP. They posted personal property bonds but had a hearing to attend that Friday.41 This shift in tactic demonstrated very clearly that not only was Quesenberry not weakening, but he was also starting to try new things to get past the apparent stalemate between him and the demonstrators.

After Quesenberry started trying to use the legal system to combat the CIP, the sequence of events somewhat paralleled the sequence of events at Bailey’s. Quesenberry continued to use warrants to arrest demonstrators, but he made his case in court on September 6th for an injunction that would “forbid mass demonstrations, limit picketing, and assure orderly conduct at his restaurant.”42 Hereford was once again the judge and Henderson was once again the defendants’ attorney. Quesenberry argued that he had lost five hundred dollars each month for July and August because of the demonstrations and “regular customers . . . would not patronize his place of business if it were integrated.”43 In the end, Hereford denied the petition for an injunction, saying that “he felt denial of Negroes by a restaurant licensed by the city and state is contrary to state law.”44 And once again, despite the fact that Quesenberry tried to make his case without speaking of race, Hereford made it about race, being very clear that Quesenberry was depriving the black people of Huntington of their rights. While the court could not stop him from serving whomever he desired, it would not support his actions.45

There was no happy ending with the White Pantry. It continued refusing to serve black customers, the CIP continued to protest, and Quesenberry continued to fight back. At one point, he used a cattle prod on Phil Carter during a sit-in.46 The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin, was still not enough.47 Quesenberry decided to integrate only after the Supreme Court had made a ruling on the Act in December.48 One of stipulations he demanded, however, was that he would never serve Phil Carter.49 Although the battle fought with Quesenberry was long and hard, most Huntington establishments integrated simply to avoid the hassle they observed at the White Pantry.50 While it may be true that the demonstrators won a legal battle by getting integration on paper, the attitudes of Quesenberry and even the blacks that had demonstrated did not reflect the racial harmony and equality ideal that most Civil Rights activists were ultimately aiming for. 51

In looking at these sit-ins, it’s important to put them within the context of racial atmosphere in Huntington mentioned above. Michael Gray says it is absolutely true that a vast majority of whites did absolutely nothing. He goes so far as to qualify his statement, saying 99.9% of whites in the town did nothing. While admitting that some whites may have tried to pass off their passivity as neutral, Gray clearly says in a situation like what was going on at the White Pantry you were either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. It was also true, he says, that a vast majority of blacks did nothing. It was a different nothing than the 99.9% of white folks because some gave money and support on the street. It was in not putting their bodies on the line that they did nothing. He goes on to discuss some of the possible reasons for this. One of the main ones was simply that the black population in Huntington was very dependent economically on the white population. If being on the line was going to cost someone their job, they did not, and understandably so, actively participate. One other significant reason was the dedication of the demonstrators to non-violence. The demonstrators did not want people on the picket lines who would not or could not commit to their methods. A final reason, Gray also says is “a disturbing percentage of black folk just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand it.”52

Huntington local Jim Casto was interning at Channel 3 News the summers of 1963-64 and even worked some during the Fall/Winter in between. He believes that the prevailing attitude in the white community about racial matters in the early 60s was something like “they really have their troubles down south . . . We’re very fortunate our blacks know their place. We won’t have that problem because we’ve treated our blacks well.”53 Once the problems did break out, however, many white people thought if they ignored them, they would go away.54 The fact that the problems not only failed to disappear but grew increasingly prevalent forced many whites to abandon their claimed ignorance.

The sit-ins forced people out their comfort zones. The racial attitudes that were held for so long in Huntington were directly being challenged by these sit-ins, even for the man on the street who was not directly affected by them. The Civic Interest Progressives successfully integrated one of Huntington’s well-known middle-class restaurants in Bailey’s Cafeteria. They moved on to fight the White Pantry until it was forced by law to meet their demands. As a citizen in the community, one could not sweep these events under the rug because the black population that was seemingly passive before was now refusing to be so. It would be near impossible to have a completely neutral opinion on Quesenberry using a cattle prod or insecticides on black demonstrators. Also, one could not completely ignore the elimination of segregation by establishments in Huntington to avoid similar conflicts. The Civil Rights issue had arrived full force in Huntington and would not be going away.  The sit-ins helped bring these issues to the table, but they did not resolve them all. For Huntington, they served a foundational role for the dynamic struggle for black equality in every aspect of life that has continued up to the present.

1 “Greenbrier Admits Singing Marchers.” The Herald Dispatch, August 20, 1963, 1.

2 “Negroes Call Barron Order ‘Slap In Face’.” Charleston Daily Mail, October 19, 1963, 14.

3 Virginia Historical Society. “Equal Access to Public Accommodations .” Accessed March 31, 2011.

4 Delaney, Theodore Carter. “The Sit-In Demonstrations in Historic Perspective.” In North Carolina Historical     Review, 431-438. North Carolina Division of Archives & History, 2010. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2011).

5 Wallenstein, Peter. “To Sit or Not to Sit: The Supreme Court of the United States and the Civil Rights Movement in the Upper South.” Journal of Supreme Court History 29, no. 2 (July 2004): 145-162. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2011).

6 Jo Williams, phone conversation with author, March, 2011.

7 Bruce A. Thompson, “An appeal for racial justice: The Civic Interest Progressives’ confrontation with Huntington, West Virginia and Marshall University, 1963-1965,” (Huntington, WV: Marshall University Master’s Thesis, 1986), 23-24.

8 “Marshall Students In ‘Share-In’ At Cafeteria.” The Herald Dispatch. April 26, 1963, 13.

9 Michael Gray, Interview with the Author, March 2011.

10 “Sit-Ins Sweep Across the South (1960-1964).”

11 “Anti-Discrimination Group Planned.” The Parthenon, February 22, 1963, 1.

12 “Committee Organized To Lead Group Activity.” The Parthenon, March 8, 1963, 1.

13 Michael Gray, Interview with the Author, March 2011.

14 Bruce A. Thompson, “An Appeal for Racial Justice: The Civic Interest Progressives’ Confrontation with Huntington, West Virginia and Marshall University, 1963-1965,” (Huntington, WV: Marshall University Master’s Thesis, 1986), 6-7.

15 Thompson, “An Appeal for Racial Justice, 58

16 The vast majority of the newspaper articles referenced throughout this paper list Phil Carter as directly participating (as opposed to just picketing or supporting) in the protests and demonstrations of the CIP. Also, most of the people consulted for this paper, either directly by interview or indirectly by referencing me to other people, mentioned Phil Carter as the main person to talk to concerning the sit-ins.

17 The White Pantry will be one of the main focuses of this paper, but nothing was found on action against Colonial Bowling Lane and Thabit’s Delicatessen

18 “Study Group Reports Racial Discrimination.”The Parthenon, March 27, 1963.

19 This paper concentrates on the CIPs sit-in demonstrations and is by no means exhaustive on their activities. Thompson’s master’s thesis mentioned above contains much more information on some of the sit-in demonstrations as well as other CIP activities.

20 “Bailey’s to Go To Court Over Pickets.” The Herald Dispatch, May 2, 1963.

21 “10 Students Stage ‘Share-In’.” The Parthenon, May 1, 1963.; “Marshall Students In ‘Share-In’ At Cafeteria.” The Herald Dispatch, April 26, 1963

22 “10 Students Stage ‘Share-In’.” The Parthenon, May 1, 1963.

23 “Bailey’s To Go To Court Over Pickets.” The Herald Dispatch, May 2, 1963.

24 “Injunction Hearing Saturday; 11 Students Due to Appear.” The Parthenon,  May 8, 1963.

25  Injunction Hearing Set Saturday.” The Herald Dispatch, May 3, 1963, 1.

26 “Petition by Cafeteria Before Hereford Today.” The Herald Dispatch, May 4, 1963.

27 “Injunction is Amended.” The Herald Dispatch, May 9, 1963.

28 Ibid.

29 “Judge Refuses Plea To Curtail Picket Activity.” The Herald Advertiser, May 12, 1963.

30 “Cafeteria Abandons Race Fight.” Charleston Daily Mail, May 18, 1963.

31 “High Court Bars State From Acting in Sit-Ins.” The Herald Dispatch, May 21, 1963.

32 “Study Group Reports Racial Discrimination.” The Parthenon, March 27, 1963.

33 Michael Gray, oral interview with the author, March 2011.

34 Bruce A. Thompson, “An appeal for racial justice: The Civic Interest Progressives’ confrontation with Huntington, West Virginia and Marshall University, 1963-1965,” (Huntington, WV: Marshall University Master’s Thesis, 1986), 57.

35 “NAACP Threatens Boycotts Of Stores; Students Sit-In Here.” The Herald Advertiser, July 28, 1963.

36 “Two Sit-Ins Staged At Local Restaurant.” The Herald Dispatch, August 4, 1963, 1, 4; “Fumes End Sit-In; Girl Collapses.” The Herald Dispatch, August 9, 1963.

37 James Casto, oral interview with the author, April 2011.

38 “Council Acts on Sit-In Issue.” The Herald Dispatch, August 13, 1963.

39 “Council Confers On Race Issue.” The Herald Dispatch, August 15, 1963.

40 Ibid.

41 “2 Arrested On Trespass Charges.” The Herald Advertiser, August 25, 1963.

42 “Ruling Awaited On Bid To Deny Café Enjoiner.” The Herald Dispatch, September 7, 19631.

43 Ibid..

44 “Warns Against Violence and Discrimination.” The Herald Advertiser, September 8, 1963.

45 Ibid.

46 Bruce A. Thompson, “An appeal for racial justice: The Civic Interest Progressives’ confrontation with Huntington, West Virginia and Marshall University, 1963-1965,” (Huntington, WV: Marshall University, Master’s Thesis, 1986), 57.

47 Cornell University Law School. “Civil Rights.”

48 “Restaurant Bows To High Court Rule.” Charleston Gazette, December 18, 1964, 25.

49 Thompson. “An Appeal for Racial Justice.” 87

50 Ibid., 89-90

51 Jo Williams, phone conversation with author, March, 2011. He made the analogy of abusing a pet and how regardless of how good one’s intentions are, the animal’s lack of trust will take time to go away.

52 Michael Gray, Interview with the Author, March 2011.

53 James Casto, Interview with the Author, April 2011.

54 Thompson, “An Appeal for Racial Justice.” 45