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

From granite to HBO: How a southern boy transitioned to LA

By Virginia Phillips Blanton


He broke the mold

The trade offs were immense when Herman Phillips IV packed up his 2008 Honda CR-V, abandoning White Oak, South Carolina to traverse the country, running down a dream. Magnolia trees for palm trees. Crock-Pot mac ‘n cheese for authentic street pho. Acres of land for a rent-controlled shoebox. The boldest compromise was leaving the family granite business for a production assistant job at HBO.

Dora and Herman “Grady” Phillips III had five children. Hannah Brown, Ruthie, Mary Grace, Sarah and Hunter were raised in a town of 50 people. “Our parenting philosophy was to bring our children up in fear and admiration of the Lord,” Grady said.

“There was no part of my life untouched by religion,” Herman said. He couldn’t read “Harry Potter” because it was considered a satanic influence. Any film he watched was vetted through biblical movie reviews. Church on Sunday was clockwork.

“I always dreaded a Sunday morning in my house. I would dread the process of getting ready, putting on my tie and pushing everyone out the door. We had to drive an hour to church and an hour back. It was the most boring drive. We would listen to a sermon on the way, stay the entire service, then listen to a different sermon on the drive back,” Herman said.

He started going by Herman instead of his given name, Hunter, when he was 16. “It was too much of a stereotypical, southern boy name. I realized it wouldn’t be very good branding for who I wanted to be,” he said.

He chose filming over hunting

Phillips Granite Company was established in 1933. Herman always felt pressured to take over the family business and play the role of a good, Christian, southern gentleman. When he was 9 years old, he told his dad he wanted to be a filmmaker.

“I had two choices: to either embrace the expectations and lie to myself and others or leave it all behind and reinvent who I was supposed to be,” he said.

“I remember the first duck, quail and dove Hunter shot. I could read that it wasn’t a passion for him like it was for me. But he enjoyed us being together. We still hunt together when he comes home,” Grady said.

The one thing Herman gleefully shot as a boy was footage. He started writing little scripts when he was 7 years old. On a personal YouTube channel, he uploaded reviews of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” His parents allowed this online presence because he spoke with a brown paper bag over his head with eye cutouts to maintain privacy. When he was 13, his mother took him to be an extra in “The Hunger Games” franchise.


Growing up, Herman felt like he didn’t fit in with his White Oak, South Carolina community, but after working on HBO’s “Insecure”, he finally found his niche.

Adversity didn’t stop him

The first time Herman visited California was to tour colleges. Grady and Dora accompanied him. They passed out Bibles on the street in between tours of the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University. Even then, they sensed their son’s magnetism toward Los Angeles.

Granite weathers away slower than other rocks. But it can bear abrasions. Herman’s acceptance to the University of Southern California validated every unacceptance he felt in his hometown. “But when USC didn’t offer me any scholarships or financial aid whatsoever, everything seemed to collapse around me. I don’t think I’ve ever been that distraught, before or since. It’s still hard to think about,” he said. The reality of $60,000 a year sunk in. He enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s Honor College.

“He was very much a gentleman about it. He understood why he couldn’t go,” said Dora.

Herman’s career momentum kick started at a Philips’ family reunion, of all places.The  It was the summer before his first semester at the University of South Carolina. He was deflated about settling in South Carolina. He had no idea his mentor was floating in a sea of nametags. Hello, my name is: Ben Patrick. A production sound mixer who resided in LA, Patrick connected Herman with Jim Kleverweis, a producer at HBO. One coffee with Kleverweis and a conspicuous email correspondence landed him a summer job working on the television series “Insecure,” directed by Issa Rae. Herman worked every college summer in some entertainment capacity in LA

“People have their cliques, their respective groups, their fraternities and sororities. I had never felt like I had found my people, my tribe, until I stepped on a film set. Once I did, it washed over me. ‘Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like,’” he said.

The City of Angels summoned him. The summer before his junior year of college, an assistant director on “Insecure” encouraged him to drop out and continue working with them. Heeding the advice, he loaded extra credit hours onto his schedule and plunged into his honors thesis, graduating a year early. His exodus from the East Coast began five days after graduation.

Neighbors warned him: “Traffic is going to be terrible,” and “They do it different out West.” The difference is what drives him. Jack Kerouac style, he sped through 10 states to his new home. The road trip was a formal education for his narrow worldview.

He grew but never changed

LA has not watered down his southern mannerisms from sweet to unsweet tea. The phrases yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir and no sir remain in his vernacular. “He’s found great success in his first few years in LA, but that hasn’t changed who he is. He’s still the same old Herman,” said Matt Francis, his best friend.

“One of the reasons he wears facial hair is to cover up the fact that he’s only 21. On Monday, he had to drive 40 miles to be on location at 5 a.m. He woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got organized. Hunter is very organized. Everything is working in his favor,” said Dora.

A wide shot of his West Coast life doesn’t fit a single still. His White Oak routine was stagnant. He facilitates physical production for the upcoming HBO series “Euphoria” with rising talent Zendaya. He was recently  asked back onto production for a fourth season of “Insecure.” He grabs coffee for the directors and actors, wires mics and escorts actors to the camera. Everything is time-sensitive.

There is a familial structure on set that comforts him when he feels uprooted from his immediate family.

“We’re all just a bunch of weirdos trying to make it for ourselves. We’re all here for the same reason, because you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself. A film can change people’s lives in ways you don’t even realize. Making something beautiful is why it all works,” he said.

Juggling a 65-hour work week, he has a standing call with his parents on Sunday afternoons, followed by another with his grandmother. Last spring, Grady and Herman went skydiving together. Herman jumped first.

“Once we were out of free fall, my tandem partner told me to look up. Hunter had jumped out first and we were the ones below him. How’d that happen,” Grady said.

The life Herman Grady Phillips IV lives isn’t guided by a predetermined headstone. “I’ve taken my family name and turned it into something totally different than what the name means in the South. Even though I may not be the fourth generation Phillips making granite, I represent the fourth generation of my family as entrepreneurs.” Etch that on his grave.


Edited by: Victoria Young