ROANOKE   biracial           committee         integrates Woolworth

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On April 14th, 1960 Reverend R.R. Wilkinson President of Roanoke NAACP holds his first press conference on the steps of Hill Street Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia calling out Roanoke government for their non-cooperation with Roanoke NAACP to help improve race relations. There he reconfirms his support for nonviolent demonstrations in Roanoke, Virginia.
The old Woolworths store on Campbell Ave in Roanoke, Virginia.
Courtesy of The Roanoke Times

Beginning on March 9th, 1960 the Roanoke President of the NAACP Rev. R.R. Wilkinson warned the press that demonstrations and sit-ins were coming to Roanoke to protest segregation at lunch counters. Several weeks later after African American citizens of Roanoke had their first sit-in demonstration at Woolworths in Roanoke but was denied service. After the sit in incident at Woolworths, the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the NAACP held meetings with Roanoke government officials. Attendees at this meeting were Roanoke's Mayor Vincent S. Wheeler, members of Roanoke City Council, and Roanoke's City Commissioner. They all discussed the possibility of integrating Roanoke's lunch counters. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson proposed creating a Biracial commission to improve race relations in Roanoke without any demonstrations or lawsuits. Unfortunately, the all- white Roanoke city council which included the Mayor of Roanoke, and the City Commissioner did not support the idea of a Biracial commission. In their opinion a Biracial commission would stir up trouble between blacks and whites. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson tried to stress to them that segregation was morally wrong and evil. But the truth was white government officials were all afraid and unwilling to act against segregation laws which were strongly supported by pro segregationist J. Lindsay Almond who was Governor of Virginia.


Frustrated with leaders in Roanoke's government, NAACP President Rev. R.R. Wilkinson held a press conference on April 14th, 1960 in front of his Hill Street Baptist Church on Gainsboro and McDowell Ave. There on the steps of Hill Street the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson calls out Roanoke government leaders who he called "Men in high places" for their unwillingness to work with the NAACP to improve race relations in Roanoke, Virginia. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson was now convinced that there would be no hope for improving race relations in Roanoke unless there were nonviolent demonstrations to force white leaders in Roanoke government to listen. The young black citizens of Roanoke heard Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's support for nonviolent demonstrations and decided to act. Many young African American students in Roanoke begin planning demonstrations. In April 1960 numerous African American protesters held peaceful demonstrations in front of Woolworths on Campbell Avenue. African American demonstrators held up signs to protest Woolworths for refusing to serve people of color. People all around could see that a movement had begun in Roanoke.

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Courtesy of Virginia University Library Archives
NAACP Placard carrying members from Lynchburg travels to Roanoke to participate in Picketing Demonstrations in front of Woolworths on April 1960 protesting denial of service to African Americans at Woolworth's lunch counter.


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On July 22nd, 1960 Civil Rights activist Rev. James Lawson visited Roanoke, Virginia as a guest speaker at a NAACP rally meeting that was held at First Baptist Church. There Rev. James Lawson spoke to protestors about how to organize nonviolent lunch counter sit-in demonstrations in Roanoke. He taught Roanoke protesters those same nonviolent lunch counter sit-in strategies that sparked the south first lunch counter sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina earlier that year. Back in February 1960, the Rev. James Lawson also trained students of the Nashville Student Movement group on several sit-in demonstration tactics in Nashville, Tennessee. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would utilize Rev. Lawson's nonviolent sit-in tactics to integrate lunch counters in downtown Roanoke.


Courtesy of The Roanoke Times
" I feel very keenly that we should negotiate as far as possible with those in authority .. those with their feet on our necks." ------ says Rev. R.R. Wilkinson in a 1963 interview.

In 1960 while young African American students continued to protest outside of Woolworths the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson was planning his own strategy to fight segregation without Roanoke government. Since Roanoke city officials were unwilling to help him fight racism, the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson took matters into his own hands and reached out to black and white business owners in Roanoke to organize a secret Biracial Committee made up of 12 members; 6 black and 6 white preachers, doctors, lawyers, and local business owners whose main purpose were to peacefully integrate department stores and lunch counters in Roanoke. This secret Biracial Committee highly orchestrated strategies to achieve nonviolent integration in Roanoke, Virginia. 


Rev. R.R. Wilkinson knew that the Roanoke Biracial Committee had to be secret because in 1960 segregation was the law in the state of Virginia and in most southern states in America. So, the Roanoke Biracial Committee were all taking risks meeting together to discuss integration plans. Technically, they were all breaking the law and if they got caught organizing to integrate, they all risk going to jail or being fined in court. So, when Rev. R.R. Wilkinson needed to discuss integration plans with members of the Biracial Committee, he would make routine stops at each member's place of business. Sometimes Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would bring his two daughters with him during these stops. One of the major members of the Biracial Committee was a black physician named Dr. Maynard Law. Dr. Law was the Co Chairman of the Biracial Committee on race relations. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would meet with Dr. Law in his doctor's office behind closed doors to discuss sit-in matters or demonstration plans to integrate while his daughters waited in the waiting room. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson always took extra precaution when it came to those secret meetings. After all, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the Biracial Committee were outlaws for equality. 

Roanoke news reporters claimed that white citizens of Roanoke were not ready for integration. The press was expecting violence to occur during the lunch counter sit-ins. However, what the Roanoke press did not know was that the Biracial Committee led by the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson held secret meetings at his house in his basement with white store merchants from 11pm to 3am in the morning, just hours before the lunch counter sit-ins would take place. The meetings were secret, so they all parked their cars in the garage and in the back of Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's house out of sight. Since white leaders in Roanoke government were being non cooperative on improving race relations, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's strategy to achieve racial equality was to negotiate and make allies with white store owners in Roanoke and bring them into the fold in what the Biracial Committee were planning to do. This strategy would help make white store merchants see that change was nothing to fear. In those secret meetings, all parties reached an agreement and discussed plans on how to peacefully organize lunch counter sit-ins in Roanoke.



August 27th, 1960
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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times
Courtesy of The Roanoke Times
1960 Woolworths lunch counter being integrated in Roanoke, Virginia during a sit-in.

As a result of the Roanoke Biracial Committee secret meetings with white merchants, a few hours later that day on August 27th, 1960 led by the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson, Woolworths became the first establishment in Roanoke to integrate without any incidents. In Woolworths two African American women and a boy whose names were not reported at the time and may be lost to history sat at the lunch counter and ordered a slice of pie, a soda and a sundae, all under the watchful eye of the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the Biracial Committee that had organized the event. After the successful first integration of Woolworths, gradually Roanoke Kress lunch counters also began to integrate. Although it took three more years, S&W Cafeteria became Roanoke's first and only cafeteria to integrate after negotiations with the NAACP, with backing from the Biracial Committee. Afterwards, during the next few weeks Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and the Roanoke Biracial Committee kept on recruiting African American men and women to participate in lunch counter sit-ins as a test to see if they would receive service or not from white employers. The Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would often use his daughters Cassandra and Nadine as guinea pigs, taking them to restaurants, stores and movie theaters to test integration to see if white employers would ignore or serve them. Meanwhile, in downtown Roanoke two more African American men walked into Woolworths to sit at the lunch counter again to see if they would receive service. They brought their newspapers with them in case they had to sit in for hours. Mostly everything went smoothly, and the African American customers were served quickly in Woolworths. Slowly but surely integration had arrived in Roanoke.

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S&W Cafeteria on Jefferson St. in Roanoke, Virginia in 1963.
This photo is of a woman and a girl walking on Campbell Avenue looking east from First Street SW in Roanoke, Virginia. An imprint on the back of this photograph states, "WSLS-TV merchandising promotion photograph." Down the left side of Campbell Avenue, the business signs of N. W. Pugh department store and S. H. Kress 5 cents to 25 cents store are partially visible. Across the street, two city busses are parked in front of F. W. Woolworth, Kinney Shoes, and Good Friend, a women's clothing store.
Rev. Edward T. Burton
Rev. Edward Burton.jpg

When there were not enough volunteers to help integrate more lunch counters in Roanoke, Virginia the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson recruited several young ministers to participate in the sit-ins. One of them was Rev. Wilkinson's friend a 33 year old Rev. Edward T. Burton pastor of Sweet Union Baptist Church, who also participated in the lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworths in Roanoke, including one at a segregated motel on Franklin Road and drinking from a segregated water fountain on Jefferson Street.


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Courtesy of The Roanoke Times

Roanoke public transpiration began integrating in 1963. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson and his NAACP colleagues would ride buses and sit in the front seat to test out integration. The Roanoke NAACP experiences on buses were mostly peaceful. Most white bus drivers complied with integration. Under the Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's leadership, the Roanoke Biracial Committee integrated a total of 17 lunch counters in downtown Roanoke within a year without any violence or incidents. 

ROANOKE biracial committee 1960 MEMBERS

John W. Hancock Jr..jpg
Gordan Willis.jpg
Founder of Roanoke Electric Steel Corporation and Civil Rights Activist.
Civil Rights Activist, Roanoke Parent Teacher Association Representative/ Founder of A. Byron Smith Oil Company/ Real Estate and Bond Businessman. Co Chairman of Biracial Committee 
A Navy Aircraft veteran, and Civil Rights Activist who became Head of Roanoke Valley Development Corp., which turned the American Viscose property into the Roanoke Industrial Center. He served on the State Board for Community Colleges, becoming Chairman. He was also Chairman of the State Board for Higher Education in Virginia.
Rev. Emmett Green.jpg
A prominent Roanoke physician, Chief of Surgery and Chief of Staff at Burrell Memorial Hospital. Co Chairman of the Biracial Committee on race relations Civil Rights Activist. 
President and Co-Founder of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home Inc. and Civil Rights Activist in Roanoke, Virginia.
Pastor of First Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia and Civil Rights Activist.

Members without pictures







World War 2 Navy Veteran
Roanoke Civil Rights Leader
Pastor of Hill Street Baptist Church
Creator of Roanoke Biracial Commission
President of the Baptist Pastors
Conference of Roanoke, Salem, Vinton, and Vicinity in 1968
President of the Roanoke Valley Ministers Conference in 1978.
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