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. Rev. Wilkinson called out city officials for their non-cooperation with the NAACP to help improve race relations in Roanoke, Virginia.
Courtesy of The Roanoke Times
The old Woolworths store on Campbell Ave in Roanoke, Virginia.
Beginning on March 9th, 1960, 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. After African American citizens of Roanoke had their first sit-in demonstration at Woolworths in Roanoke but was denied service, 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.
REV. R.R. WILKINSON SUPPORT DEMONSTRATIONS
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, 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. Black and white students in Roanoke heard Rev. R.R. Wilkinson's support for nonviolent demonstrations and decided to act. High school and college students in Roanoke begin planning and organizing demonstrations. Most students who held sit-in demonstrations were from Lucy Addison High School. In 1962, Rueben Lewis Jr. founded the Roanoke Student Movement which included both black and white students coming together to push for equal rights and social change in Roanoke during the 1960's. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would take advantage of this surge of young protesters of all races coming together to end segregation. He invited many of those students to his NAACP mass meetings to discuss sit-in protests. Many demonstrators in Roanoke held up signs to protest Woolworths for refusing to serve people of color. All could see that a movement had begun in Roanoke.
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.
REV. JAMES LAWSON
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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 Roanoke Student Movement would utilize Rev. Lawson's nonviolent sit-in tactics to integrate lunch counters in downtown Roanoke.
ROANOKE BIRACIAL COMMITTEE
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 group. This group was called the Roanoke Committee of Community Relations; better known as the Biracial Committee. The group included 14 members; 7 black and 7 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. 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. Sometimes, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would bring his two daughters along with him during these stops to make it seem as though he was taking them to get a doctor checkup just in case anybody was watching. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson would often have his daughters wait in the waiting room while he would meet with Dr. Law in his doctor's office behind closed doors to discuss sit-in matters or demonstration plans to integrate. Rev. R.R. Wilkinson always took extra precautions 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 at night from 11pm to 3am in the morning, before the lunch counter sit-ins would take place later that day. 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.
OUTLAWS FOR EQAULITY
INTEGRATION OF LUNCH COUNTERS IN ROANOKE
August 27th, 1960
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 successfully 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. After the integration of Woolworths, Rev. R.R. Wilkinson also negotiated with the Holiday Inn hotel manager which led the Biracial Committee to integrate the Holiday Inn on Williamson Road. Integration had arrived in Roanoke.
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
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. Rev. Burton joined the lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworths in downtown Roanoke, including one at a segregated motel on Franklin Road. He also demonstrated by drinking from a segregated water fountain on Jefferson Street.
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.