Igniting a change for generations: How the Chapel Hill Nine started a civil rights movement

By Valerie Lundeen

“You all are not allowed to sit here and eat,” Big John bellowed.

The nine high school boys had ordered their food already. But unlike their usual visits to Colonial Drugstore, they hadn’t come for milkshakes.

They came to demand dignity, setting in motion a civil rights movement that has yet to end in Chapel Hill.

The teenagers sat in a booth at 450 W. Franklin St. It was February 28, 1960.

Because they were black, it was illegal for them to request food service like white customers did.

But the boys refused to budge.

The white owner of Colonial Drugstore, “Big John” Carswell, considered himself a friend to the boys. He sold medicine on credit to their families.

But that day, he called the police. Later he pressed charges for trespassing.

When the policeman arrived, he took their names: William Cureton, John Farrington, Harold Foster, Earl Geer, David Mason Jr., Clarence Merritt Jr., James “Jim” Merritt, Douglas “Clyde” Perry and Albert Williams.

They were Lincoln High School students, then 16 to 18-years-old, and were the youngest in the nation to organize a sit-in.

After the Chapel Hill Nine’s act of civil disobedience, the town would never be the same.

The return to where it began


Mason, Perry and Jim Merritt didn’t return to the site of Colonial Drugstore—now occupied by West End Wine Bar—for 59 years. Of the four living members of the Nine, only Williams had revisited the site.


On Thursday, February 28, 2019, all four men reconvened outside the spot where Carswell had refused them service. They gathered for a ceremony in their honor.


In November 2017, following a conversation with Danita Mason-Hogans, Mason’s daughter, Mayor Pam Hemminger created the Historic Civil Rights Commemorations Task Force. The team delved into the history of civil rights in Chapel Hill, picking the Nine’s story as the first to explore in depth.


The task force recommended that a permanent marker be constructed in honor of the Nine, whom many credit with catalyzing the town’s civil rights movement.


“It was us, the students from Lincoln High School, who started the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill,” said Williams. “We were igniters.”


The marker, dedicated Thursday, is scheduled for installation outside West End Wine Bar on February 28, 2020, the sit-in’s 60th anniversary.


Town Manager Maurice Jones began the dedication ceremony. His remarks set the evening’s message: legacy.


“I realize that I stand on your shoulders,” Jones said to the four men standing beside him. “And for that, I am eternally grateful.”


Following the outdoor ceremony, community members marched around the corner to North Roberson Street, belting “We Shall Overcome” on their way to another three hours of speeches, music and cake at First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill.


Throughout the evening, speaker after speaker thanked the Nine for sparking a tradition of civil disobedience in Chapel Hill.


A small movement marked history


In the days following the sit-in, Foster—the Nine’s leader—and other African-Americans met at the Roberson Street Community Center and formed the Chapel Hill Council on Racial Equality.


For eight months, activists protested at Colonial Drugstore, which lost 50 percent of its business as a result, according to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center—a community center in the historically black neighborhood of Northside.


The Nine’s actions “threw the entire town into shock and confusion” for years, said task force subcommittee chair Reginald Hildebrand during a speech Thursday.


Throughout the early ‘60s, protests against segregation abounded. The acts of civil disobedience—sit-ins, lay-ins, pickets, fasts, marches—were joint efforts of the young and the old, the black and the white.


Coordination between Northside activists and university allies, such as the Student Peace Union, gave the civil rights movement of the ‘60s traction, said Molly Luby, a town employee and task force member.


On January 13, 1964, the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen rejected, for the second time, a public accommodations order to desegregate town businesses. “Protesters shut down Chapel Hill after that,” Luby said.


They sat outside the courtroom, blocking its doors. They clogged the intersection of Franklin and Columbia Streets on basketball game day.


In April 1964, two black students from Lincoln High School and two white students from UNC-Chapel Hill protested segregation with an eight-day Holy Week fast.


The Ku Klux Klan responded with a 700-person rally near Hillsborough.


In 1966, the town’s schools desegregated, 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Lincoln High School closed its doors.


Williams was hired as the town’s first African-American firefighter September 1, 1968. On May 6, 1969, Howard Lee was elected mayor of Chapel Hill, the first African-American to hold the office in any majority-white city in the South.


And that was only the ‘60s.



It’s more than a legacy of nine

Fifty-nine years of activists stand on the shoulders of the Chapel Hill Nine, but those teenagers stood on some shoulders, too.


Just 27 days before the Nine’s sit-in, four African-American college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s. The Greensboro Four inspired the Nine, who spent weeks planning their sit-in, said Mason.


The spark might’ve come from Greensboro, but the firewood came from Chapel Hill. The igniters of the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill stood on the shoulders of their families, communities and  churches.


“There are many more of the nine people who need to be honored,” said Andrea Wuerth, director of education and communication at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center.


For generations, the Nine’s families had worked for UNC-CH and other white-owned institutions in town. Williams said his mother and grandmother cooked for the university and for sorority and fraternity houses.


What the Nine did, said Wuerth, was bring light to the long-standing grievances of the local African-American community. Injustice wasn’t new. But the teenagers took action when many of their elders wouldn’t or couldn’t, for fear of losing their jobs, or worse.


Williams and Mason credit their activism to their community that raised them to value kindness, justice and respect. The men want their legacy to be a new generation of leaders, activists and kind humans standing up for their beliefs.


“It is my hope, it is my prayer, that the younger generations will be inspired by the actions that we’ve taken,” said Mason.


Akanke Mason-Hogans, 17, of Durham, embodies the legacy of the Nine—metaphorically, as a young activist and literally, as Mason’s granddaughter. Mason-Hogans spoke to Thursday’s crowd on the importance of intergenerational dialogue in social organizing. Learn from those who came before, she urged.


“It’s not a new thing to be young and active,” Mason-Hogans said. She’s involved with Rise to Run, a national, grassroots movement that mobilizes young women to be politically active.


Williams imagined a young person—perhaps a future daughter of Mason-Hogans—walking the streets of Chapel Hill in 30 years. She passes the marker commemorating the Chapel Hill Nine. What does she learn?


Williams says, “That we have to put up the effort to respect each other, understand each other, no matter our religion or the color of our skin.”


Edited by Victoria Young