Repost from Richard Lassiter
The stage for the civil rights story in Kinston, NC during the early 1960s can be set with an understanding of who was undertaking the role of activist. While older college students were driving the Civil Rights movement across the state and nation, in Kinston, teenagers took up the cause. The NAACP Youth Council was founded in 1943 and produced untold numbers of civil rights leaders including one of the young men at the Greensboro sit-in. The Kinston NAACP chapter was organized in 1956 with George Marks as president. In 1960, Simeon White, a senior at Adkin High School, was the Kinston chapter president and Mrs. Alice Hannibal was their advisor.
Mrs. Hannibal was one of two devoted women who guided the Kinston NAACP Youth Council and lead Kinston’s civil rights movement; the other was Annie Whitehead. A native of Onslow County, Mrs. Whitehead and her husband moved to Kinston in 1954. Disturbed by poor conditions for African Americans in Kinston, she “set out on a mission to provide change.” Mrs. Whitehead met Alice Hannibal in 1956 as the latter was planning her city council campaign. Gregor Hannibal recalled the work of his mother and Mrs. Whitehead in a 2006 Free Press article following a ceremony honoring Mrs. Whitehead: “Many of the gains (voter registration, adult education, and integration of businesses, restaurants and theaters) back then were accomplished because of her work,” he said. Mrs. Whitehead stated some of her recollections in another 2006 interview: “It was terrible, it was a bad feeling, it felt like you wasn’t even a human being. But to tell you the truth, they didn’t think we were.” Mrs. Whitehead assisted Mrs. Hannibal’s campaign effort by coaching potential African American voters to pass the voting test: writing their name and reciting parts of the constitution. Mrs Whitehead helped form the Citizen Improvement Association, which was aimed at voter registration and work to alleviate the rampant poverty among African Americans in Kinston.
Mrs. Whitehead’s oral history made it clear that there was not always complete agreement within the African American community about how, when, and what social change should happen. After losing her city council seat, Alice Hannibal ran for county commissioner. During that campaign, the male leaders of the Citizen Improvement Association gave their support to a male candidate. In response, Mrs. Whitehead helped to found the Volunteer Housewives Association that worked to forge the way for equality by promoting education, fighting poverty, and helping to register 3,000 new Lenoir County voters in the 1960s. The group’s voter education program, which included volunteers to escort applicants through the process at the courthouse, became a model eventually used statewide. The group grew into the Concerned Citizens of Kinston. Mrs. Whitehead was appointed by Gov. Bob Scott to the North Carolina Board of Health’s Advisory Committee for Medical Assistance in 1969 and served six years. Also about this time, Mrs. Whitehead was offered a radio show. According to Mrs. Whitehead the station owner, Jack Rider, used the station to espouse racism and hate-speech. When he was forced to racially diversify his station, Mrs. Whitehead became the host of a talk show called “The Spot Light.” As time passed, Mrs. Whitehead’s calm and welcoming demeanor on the air won Jack Rider’s respect. Mr. Rider made his feelings public by issuing compliments to Mrs. Whitehead on the air.
Mrs. Whitehead recalled the dangers of her activism: ‘As we were out doing these things it was real dangerous because we got threats, we got phone calls . . . When I talk about it, it just hurt[s] me so bad it almost brings me to tears what we went through.” What Mrs. Whitehead went through was at times harrowing. She recalled that KKK marches through town were common and that crosses were burned in her yard as well as at the Hannibals’. Another time, someone threw a torch through the window of her home. Once, an armed Klansman came to Mrs. Whitehead’s front door. She opened the door and invited him in, which completely unnerved him and other Klan members. She concluded her 2012 interview by placing an emphasis on duty and responsibility stating: “Each one of us owes something to society in the community where we live.”
Another activist was Samuel Dove. Still a teenager, Mr. Dove was a senior at Adkin High School in 1960 and was living with his family in Mitchell Wooten Courts housing complex in Kinston. A few weeks after the 1960 Greensboro sit-in, Mr. Dove and his friends Curtis Henderson and Thomas Henderson staged a sit-in at Standard Drug #2 although their action was known to few people other than the participants and witnesses. Inspired by the Greensboro events, the youths made a careful plan. With Thomas Henderson posted outside the building to serve as the “look-out” in case of “trouble,” Dove and Curtis Henderson, who was Thomas’ brother, went into the drugstore. Mr. Dove was an excellent student in French and the pair used this to their advantage. Dove introduced Curtis Henderson to the white waitress as an African diplomat from Washington. This subterfuge included Mr. Dove speaking French to Curtis Henderson who replied in gibberish. Mr. Dove “translated” Henderson’s food order of eggs, bacon, and coffee to the waitress. She hesitated, Mr. Dove recalled, and went to get the “young manager” who responded to the word “Washington” in the introduction and ordered the food to be prepared. An African American waitress, who happened to be a neighbor of Mr. Dove’s, wanted to be the one to deliver the plate to the false ambassador. When she started towards them with the plate and realized who it really was, “she nearly dropped the plate,” Mr. Dove said. She then asked the white waitress to make the delivery. Mr. Dove remained standing at the counter beside Curtis Henderson until he was nearly finished with his meal when Dove too, took a seat. The pair paid the bill and left the building. Mr. Dove remembered that the three youths “ran all the way back to East Kinston.” Fearing repercussions for themselves and their parents (both of the boys’ mothers were ministers) they did not publicize their act.
While the 1960 sit-in may not have had lasting effects, in retrospect, it illustrates the increasing dissatisfaction among many Kinston African Americans with the status quo. The 1960 sit-in was following in February 1961 with a second sit-in at Standard Drug #2. Annie Whitehead was a participant at the 1961 sit-in. She recalls that the group of about twenty protesters marched to Standard Drug # 2 and looking in the windows, saw that the group of white customers, whom she refers to as “the officials,” were “meeting.” Her description of the event highlights the tradition of important political gatherings held over meals at the lunch counter. Mrs. Whitehead also notes that Standard Drug # 2 was chosen specifically because of its prominent role in Kinston politics.
The sit-in began as youths Simeon White and William Cheeks “rushed” inside the lunch counter and claimed the only two vacant seats, while other members rushed to the front door. The hurried actions of the group caused anger and panic among the white patrons, many of whom ran out the back door. Mrs. Whitehead found their reaction ironic since the back door had long served as the African American entrance to the store.
The protesters sat at the counter, ordering and eating for about two hours. They were served and, according to Mrs. Whitehead, not asked to leave. Afterwards the group returned to their Youth Council headquarters. An oral history account from George Skinner, who was the store manager during the 1950s and 1960s, differs slightly in the details. Mr. Skinner recalls that the protesters were served, but were eventually asked to leave. According to Mr. Skinner the store closed for a short time “in order to keep everyone calm,” but reopened later that day. Mrs. Whitehead remembered that for several days following the sit-in, African Americans returned to the lunch counter and continued to be served. Change at the Standard Drug # 2, occurred peacefully in large measure because of store owner Henry Suddreth’s willingness to change policy. Mrs. Whitehead felt that Suddreth lost business over the incident, but that he “was very nice about it – acted like it didn’t bother him.” Mr. Skinner’s recollections about Mr. Suddreth fit with this picture. According to Skinner, Standard Drug # 2 was one of the first businesses in Kinston to hire African Americans to “work in front” serving food. He himself hired several young African American women to work at the counter.
The after effects of the Standard Drug #2 sit-in are recorded in a news report in the Carolina Times on June 13, 1963. The article, which is about later protests at downtown Kinston businesses stated simply: “Lunch counters in Kinston desegregated in December 1961.” The discrepancy between the December date and the recollections of Mrs. Whitehead may have a number of explanations. The most likely is that the varying dates reflect the delay between the Standard Drug # 2 sit-in and desegregation actions among other drugstore owners. This is supported by a February 3,1963, article in the Carolina Times giving a review of the activities of the Youth Council chapters statewide. The Kinston Youth Council reported that “after brief sit-ins, the group was successful in getting the management of ten drugstores to drop their segregated lunch counter policy.” The names of all of these drugstores are not know, but Kinston drugstores in 1960 included: the six Standard Drug stores, Hood’s Rexall Drugs, Lenoir Drug Co., Parkview Drug Co., Sewall’s Pharmacy, and Temple Drug. It should be noted that Mrs. Whitehead reported that the only lunch counter sit-in held in Kinston was at Standard Drug #2. Mr. Skinner recalls that Standard Drug owner, Henry Suddreth, was one of the business owners who met with the protesters to arrange a date for integration.
The history of the sit-ins at Standard Drug #2 are not written down in any single source. The racial attitudes of the time perhaps contribute to the lack of contemporary documentation. No news reports of either sit-in at the Standard Drug #2 has been found. Samuel Dove, who went on to be heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement as a college student, recalled that white leaders and the white media “suppressed anything out of the black community at that time…”. It is clear that the Standard Drug sit-ins were part of many relatives small events that made up a tremendous effort to achieve racial equality. Pressure by the NAACP Youth Council, with dedicated leaders Alice Hannibal and Annie Whitehead, brought about the desegregation of many business places in Kinston from 1961 through the summer of 1963.