1.7 / History Lessons

Memory in Place, Part 1

By Adrienne Skye Roberts January 27, 2010
International Civil Rights Center and Museum, exterior view, September 2009. Photo: Adrienne Skye Roberts.

Misplaced Memorials, Preservation, and Civil Rights

Some people can claim intuitively to sense the invisible aura of past events in historical sites, as if the molecules of such sites still vibrated with the memory of their past.1
James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge

Greensboro, North Carolina, is a city with many stories to tell. The significance of its history is rarely left up to intuition alone; monuments, statues, and plaques raised on tall poles are dispersed throughout Greensboro’s downtown. These markers inform passersby of the stories embedded in the nearby landscape: the building of the railroads or the location of the first United Methodist Church. The construction of monuments or public markers consecrates these sites as a space for remembering. For Greensboro, a city whose past is intimately tied to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the act of memorialization and the importance of remembering is no small task. Within these historic locations is the potential to do more than simply remember, by dislodging this history from its site-specificity and transforming the burden of memory into an active confrontation of the climate of the civil rights today.

Greensboro is, in many ways, a microcosm for North Carolina’s negotiated, often contradictory stance with its complex racialized history. The city’s role within the Civil Rights Movement illuminates these contradictions. In 1954 Greensboro became the first Southern city to adhere to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, although it wasn’t until 1971 that Greensboro officially desegregated its public schools, making it one of the last cities to comply with the federal desegregation standards.2

During this seventeen-year standstill Greensboro became known as “the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement” after four African American students from A&T University refused to leave the whites-only lunch counter of the F.W. Woolworth Co. department store. On February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond were denied service, asked to leave, and ultimately ignored by the management. Afterwards, they spread the word about their intent to continue their protest and gathered momentum among fellow students.

Woolworth’s did not agree to open its lunch counter to African American patrons until July 25, 1960, five months after the February 1st sit-in. The initial protest ignited a series of sit-ins throughout the country. It was, in many ways, the precursor to the Freedom Rides of 1961, in which student activists traveled by interstate buses into the Deep South to test the recent outlawing of segregation in restaurants and bus terminals.

In late September 2009, I traveled to Greensboro for an artist residency at Elsewhere Artists Collaborative, a living museum and residency program set in a former thrift store in downtown Greensboro. The locus of the historic protest, the Woolworth’s building is located only a few blocks away at 132 South Elm Street. Since it closed in 1993, the only remaining evidence of the Woolworth’s is its maroon sign with gold letters that stretch above its storefront windows. Over the past seventeen years, the building has undergone a slow transformation from the once-segregated five-and-dime into a state-of-the-art museum. On February 1, 2010, the 50th anniversary of the catalyzing event, the building will re-open its doors as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. An institution dedicated to commemorating the struggle for civil rights by black Americans and their allies, the Center and Museum will connect its public to these historic events through archives, exhibitions, and an educational center. The reclamation of this building is no small feat, and particularly for those who directly participated in the protests, it symbolizes a community's ability to bring about social change.

The construction site at 132 South Elm Street held a kind of gravitational pull for me during my time there. Nearly every day I walked the short distance from Elsewhere to the Woolworth’s building, propelled by questions about memorials, preservation and civil rights: How do we commemorate the events of February 1, 1960, without regulating civil rights to a thing of the past? What role does site play in the memorialization of a movement as historically important as the fight for racial justice? What transpires between the imagination and the actual site of history? If there was a psychic energy with which I was reckoning in Greensboro, it was agitated by my seemingly insoluble questions and yet, I returned to this site day after day as though this ritual would provide me with the answers.

For the first two weeks of my residency I made daily trips to the public library, walking past the construction site at the Woolworth’s and turning east on Friendly Avenue. The second floor of the library contains a wealth of information on local history, including archives of the Greensboro Daily News dating back to the early 1900s.3 I spent a few hours each day at the microfiche machine, advancing reel after reel of photographic film, searching through illuminated newspaper pages and black and white images in an attempt to learn how the events of February 1960 were discussed in the time and place in which they occurred. On February 2 of that year, a photograph of Blair, McCain, Richmond, and McNeil taken the prior afternoon appeared in the paper. As part of their strategy, McNeil had informed Ralph Johns, a local clothing store merchant and white ally of the desegregation movement, of their plan for direct action and, in turn, Johns had warned a sympathetic journalist, who documented the event.4

Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Joseph McNeil. Sit-in, Woolworth's lunch counter, Greensboro, NC, February 1, 1960. Photo: Sit-in Movement, Inc

In this image, three of the four men look ever so slightly over their left shoulders at the camera, while the fourth—closest to the camera—stares straight ahead. Their backs are slightly slouched and their faces stern, communicating a quiet demeanor and self-aware boldness. The chairs on either side of them are empty. The lunch counter itself—a feature added to Woolworth’s in 1952—stretched almost the entire length of the store. Tiles lined the back walls and advertisements for fifteen-cent apple pies and fifty-cent hamburgers hung over the awning. Behind the counter, a black man is working. His stark white paper hat, shirt, and apron are typical of the uniforms worn by wait staff in the 1950s and '60s. His eyes are directed downwards, towards the task in front of him.

It is often impossible for places to live up to the image of them you’ve constructed in your mind. When I visited the Woolworth’s site for the first time, ducking underneath the caution tape and dodging the path of the construction workers, I felt an initial sense of disappointment, despite knowing that the building wouldn’t have remained untouched for the fifty years since the sit-ins. And yet, part of me hoped to tangibly access this history. I imagined a scene that resembled the black and white photograph with the décor of the lunch counter still intact and the prices of the menu illuminating an era long past. The photograph from February 1, 1960, fixes this image to this place. Widely circulated, the photograph now stands in for the entire event itself, and had therefore informed my own constructed image of the Woolworth’s building. The reality of the construction site at 132 South Elm Street squashed these unrealistic and nostalgic projections. While the history of the sit-ins have been influential in my own understanding of social justice movements and nonviolent protest in the United States, the building itself, in its suspended state of completion, appeared oblivious to its history. The first floor was gutted, and its original lineoleum removed in sections, resulting in exposed floorboards and piles of debris. More than oblivious, the event was unrecognizable in the site itself.

The surrounding landscape might also have appeared indifferent if it weren’t for the monuments erected in 1990 on the 30th anniversary of the sit-in. In front of the storefront windows, a bronze plaque embedded in concrete stands roughly four feet tall. The plaque displays portraits of Blair, McCain, Richmond and McNeil and the quotation, “sometimes standing for what is right means taking a seat.” On the sidewalk across from the plaque the footsteps of the four men have been cast in bronze, their traces permanently imprinted into the public street. In addition, the small side street running perpendicular to South Elm Street was renamed February One Place. These formalized monuments designate Woolworth’s as a place in which to remember and honor the events of Feburary 1, 1960. Without them, the Woolworth’s would remain a meaningful location, yet, it is these markers that make this compelling history known. For those visitors without their own visual or historical memory of the event, their knowledge remains centered on the information offered at this location.

However, the Civil Rights Movement was conducted by more than a few prominent leaders, its scope extends beyond the American South, and its intentions speak to issues that cut across time, geography and include multiracial perspectives. The complexities of this event cannot be encompassed by material form. In this sense, site becomes pertinent to memorializing the Civil Rights Movement so long as it acts as an instigator, provoking us to approach this history as an unanswered question.

Historic Marker, Greensboro, NC. Photo: Adrienne Skye Roberts

For those not present for the events memorialized, the experience of a monument requires imagination. Unlike the iconic photograph taken on February 1, 1960, the monuments in front of Woolworth’s do not document the event itself, but rather the memory of the event. In doing so, they force one to imagine the events that unfolded in that particular place so many years ago. In what way do these sites rely upon this act of imagination? How are they recreated each time someone, such as myself, goes to look for them? The act of visiting such a site confirms its historical significance. We make the exodus to see the location where something significant occurred, to experience how the space feels, observe the visible traces of an event or person and yet, when we leave, the monument remains intact.

In his book At Memory’s Edge: After Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, James E. Young suggests that monuments have the potential to absorb memory altogether, stating that “once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember.” 5 Young suggests that conventional monuments often console or redeem past atrocities but rarely challenge visitors. Antithetical to the totalizing and nation-building project of traditional monuments, Young discusses the use of what he calls countermonuments as “memorial spaces conceived to challenge the very premise of the monument.” 6 Countermonuments aim to provoke rather than console, change rather than remain static, they demand interaction from their public and perhaps most importantly, rather than contain memory they “return the burden of memory to those who come looking for it.” 7 As I visited the construction site of 132 South Elm Street again and again, it occurred to me that the building in its incomplete state was an apt metaphor for considering the fight for civil rights as still in-progress. It was this major renovation that forced me to see this site as a mirror and encouraged my own search for more information about the events that unfolded there fifty years ago, as well as their relevancy today. But once the construction is complete, and this mirror fades, the question then becomes how the site will challenge visitors to look beyond it and confront current racial conditions.

There is danger in site-specific memorialization: so long as the memory of the Civil Rights Movement is contained solely within a specific location it becomes fixed to that place, its function defined. Within this scenario, civil rights become a thing of the past, something viewed from the vantage point of the 1960s American South. The feelings of agitation I experienced in Greensboro were born from a desire to dislodge this history from its site, if even ever so slightly in order to reveal its inconsistencies as a way of suggesting that there is more of the story to tell. I looked to the Woolworth’s site to inform me and others that our work here is not done; that the questions of race and citizenship status—of whose lives are deemed valuable and therefore, protected by the state—remain as urgent as the climate of racist discrimination that propelled the four A&T students to action in 1960. This violent climate is indicative of the South’s reputation at bastion of racism and while there is a desire to relegate these complex race relations to the geographically bounded space of the American South, such sentiments reverberate throughout the country. And as Greensboro informs us, there is also a rich history of strong social movements and resistance against that which gives the South its reputation.

Woolworth's lunch counter, Natural Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. Photo: Natural Museum of American History.

In 2005, while the construction of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum was in limbo, the Smithsonian Institute acquired an eight-foot long portion of the Woolworth’s lunch counter for their Natural Museum of American History. 7 In the official press release announcing this acquisition, the Smithsonian expressed trepidation over the display of the counter. Unsure whether or not they would have adequate room to display and contextualize the counter and yet, adamant that the artifact be on view, the curators settled on the main hallway of the museum for its location. Tucked between an exhibit of Star Spangled Banners and a large sculpture of George Washington, the lunch counter with its shiny chrome backs and pink and turquoise leather seats was placed within a lineage of American history and yet, is not as easily identified within this national iconography. Three hundred miles away from its original home, the Woolworth’s lunch counter is somewhat of a misplaced memorial. But perhaps its function is one of dispersal, allowing others beyond Greensboro to access the memory of the Civil Rights Movement and therefore challenge a site’s capacity for collective remembering.

On my last day in Greensboro, part of the lunch counter was returned to the building, bringing it one step closer in its transformation into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. However, a portion of it remains on view at the Smithsonian. It seemed serendipidous that the lunch counter was re-installed in the building a few hours before my departure from Greensboro, yet despite this symbolism my thoughts continued to turn to the missing section in Washington D.C. If the lunch counter currently on view in Washington D.C. was a misplaced memorial, an artifact taken out of context that allows for the history of the sit-ins to be activated beyond its site-specificity, then perhaps the rest of the lunch counter now returned to the F.W. Woolworth’s building functions as a countermonument within the context of the completed museum. Perhaps the missing portion of the lunch counter suggests that the history and significance of the Civil Rights Movement cannot be entirely contained within site—whether a lunch counter, the city of Greensboro, or the American South. Perhaps that break in the continuum, if even only conceptual, would force us to keep searching beyond the origins of the movement, thus implicating our own role in the work of historicizing, remembering, and keeping present the objectives at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.


Editor's Note: An article about the International Civil Rights Center and Museum appears in the January 31, 2010 edition of the New York Times


  1. Young, James E. At Memory’s Edge, After Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2000).
  2. Chafe, William H. Civilities and Civil Rights, Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1980),6.
  3. In 1984 Greensboro Daily News was renamed The News & Record.
  4. Chafe, 83.
  5. Young, 95.
  6. Ibid, 96.
  7. Ibid, 53

Comments ShowHide

Related Content