By Julia Masters
After 72 years, Dave Mason Jr. had forgotten the name of the discount store — one of the only places black people could try on clothes — but not what happened in the basement.
Mason, tired of shopping, remembered the quarter his father gave him. He scrambled downstairs to the basement’s luncheonette where a dollar could turn into 10 hot dogs in a matter of minutes.
At 5 years old, he thought nothing of climbing onto the barstool while he anxiously waited for his lunch. He noticed people were staring and began to wonder why, but stayed seated.
“Dave, Dave, we’ve been looking everywhere for you! You’re not supposed to be over here,” his mother said, clearly concerned.
“Why not? I just want a hot dog,” he replied.
“You’re not supposed to be over here because you’re colored,” she said.
“Well what’s colored?” he asked.
When they got home, his mother explained that people of his complexion were not treated the same as lighter skinned, namely white, people.
That moment would stick with Mason for years.
‘I can’t believe you’re here’
On Feb. 28, 1960, 17-year-old Mason headed to the M&N Grill after the sermon ended at St. Joseph’s church. He met eight of his friends and classmates from Lincoln High School — Chapel Hill’s all-black school.
After the Greensboro Four, a group of North Carolina A&T students, staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter earlier that month, conversations near the rock wall at the end of Cotton and McDade Streets became more serious.
“The rock wall was a place that we as teenagers used to gather, and we would talk about various subjects, some of them I cannot mention,” Mason said laughing. “But we did have some very serious conversations as well, and one pertained to how we were going to go about attempting to desegregate Chapel Hill.”
They decided to start at the Colonial Drug Store owned by John Carswell, or “Big John.” Big John lived on Church Street, a street divided between blacks and whites. He knew everyone in the black community since they accounted for most of his business.
“He was a good guy. He just didn’t want black folk to sit down in his establishment,” said Clayton Weaver, who was 11 that day. Big John used to deliver medicine to his house on Cameron Avenue on his way home.
Mason’s brother had a kidney problem, so his family was always in the store to pick up prescriptions. Mason also made frequent stops for “the best cherry Cokes that you would want to have.”
That’s why Big John was shocked when Mason and his companions marched in to Colonial Drug Store and sat down at his booths and barstools.
“I was feeling joyful, needless to say I was somewhat anxious, but the main thing I was thinking about was the way I was mistreated when I was five years old,” said Mason.
“Mason, I can’t believe you’re here,” said Big John. “Does your momma know you’re here?”
Mason said nothing, but stayed seated.
That day, nine high school students, known as the Chapel Hill Nine, staged the first civil rights protest in Chapel Hill.
‘Speaks to the best of Chapel Hill’
Sixty years later, their names — Harold Foster, William Cureton, John Farrington, Earl Geer, Dave Mason Jr., Clarence Merritt Jr., James Merritt, Clyde Douglas Perry and Albert Williams — would be inscribed into the rectangular structure depicting old photographs and news-clippings that sits atop a metal base covered in slate on West Franklin Street.
Chicken wire buckled over the smooth aluminum panels bolted outside Franklin Street’s West End Wine Bar. Durham artist Stephen Hayes, sporting denim on denim, crouched down with a power tool to study the structure he was to finish in a few days.
The idea to commemorate the civil rights history of Chapel Hill was sparked by Danita Mason-Hogans, Mason’s daughter. She met with Mayor Pam Hemminger who created the Historic Civil Rights Commemorations Task Force in 2017. The task force made a civil rights timeline, trading cards with facts about the local movement for K-12 students and proposed the idea of a marker to honor the ones who started it all.
“This marker speaks to the best of Chapel Hill and the values that this community really cares about,” said Molly Luby, special projects coordinator at the Chapel Hill Public Library.
The town asked Durham native Hayes, who teaches sculpting at Duke University, to create the marker. His work centers around the way black bodies are seen, in hopes of changing the way he’s viewed as a black man.
Until the town contacted him six months ago, Hayes had never heard of the Chapel Hill Nine. After meeting with the living members of the group, Hayes realized creating the marker was more than just the logistics of fusing acrylic onto aluminum.
“Art is about exposing those ideas, to get people thinking, to get people to understand something,” Hayes said.
‘Go ahead and make the change’
On Feb. 28, 2020, Mason walked out of the West End Wine Bar wearing a black sport coat and peach boutonniere. It was the second time in 60 years he’d been inside that building. After shaking some hands, he sat in a foldable chair and watched the commemoration ceremony.
Sixty years ago, he sat outside that same building as David Caldwell, a black police officer, took down his name and informed him that Big John reserved the right to press charges for deciding to sit in his restaurant.
Two or three days after their sit-in, it was clear they’d set a movement in motion. White and black students joined their cause. Picketing and sit-ins became a common occurrence until 1964.
“There were many arrests made; we did not experience the violence they had in Alabama, thank God, but we did have violence,” Mason said. “We had people that had ammonia thrown on their face. We had one woman who had the audacity and was so vulgar that she stood over one of the protestors and urinated on him.”
One day in July 1960, five months after the sit-in, Mason was at his then-girlfriend’s house — now his wife — when his father called and told him the police were asking for him. Mason finally confessed to his parents what had happened earlier that year. The Nine hid the sit-in from their parents and adults in the community for fear that they would lose their jobs.
All nine were arrested, charged and convicted on the grounds of trespassing, as Big John decided to press charges when they returned to stage further protests.
Mason and the others appealed their case — a decision that changed their lives and not just because they didn’t go to prison.
The day of his appeal was the same day as his examination for the military. Mason was determined not to go to Vietnam — something that troubled his father, a WWII veteran.
“Daddy, I am doing this because of what you told me,” Mason said.
“What do you mean, ‘what I told you?’” his father asked.
“Well, you have been telling me ever since I was 13, if there was anything that I felt strongly about and actually believed in, to stand up for it; don’t give in,” Mason said.
Segregation laws are gone, but Mason notes that racial inequities still exist in Chapel Hill.
“We never ever thought about being honored, and I know that sounds strange. Our desire and our hope still right now is that young people will be inspired by the action that we took, just as the actions that the students took in Greensboro were inspired by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhi, and Gandhi was inspired by God,” Mason said.
“We just hope and still hope today that the younger generation can see things that need to be changed and go ahead and make the change.”
Edited by Claire Ruch and Hannah McClellan