The Sixties

Her name tag reads "Pauline," and she is a waitress at the Woolworth's five and dime on the corner of Elm and Sycamore where, 20 years ago today, four young men from the Negro college half a mile away sat down at the L-shaped, whites-only lunch counter and made history. When they ordered coffee, they were denied service. The students politely asked why, but were told to leave. Their refusal to budge officially launched the sit-in phase of the civil rights movement.

But Pauline, a middle-aged, soft-spoken white woman, just knew that one of the two black men having lunch at her counter had to be a celebrity of some sort.

"You must be one of the boys that's coming here for breakfast Friday," she said, anxiously, with a smile. "You're Frank, aren't you?" she asked, as if she had finally figured out a riddle. Franklin McCain was one of the four, but she guessed wrong.

"I think it was a good thing," Pauline volunteered "I really do," she said, as if to assure herself and her customers that the bitter and prolonged controversy -- the first black wasn't served at the lunch counter until five months after the sit-ins began -- was worth it. "I really think it was a good thing," she repeated several times.

But she never said why.

Today, the 20th anniversary of those sit-ins will be ceremonially remembered here, in a city that has once again become a national focal point of racial tension after the Nov. 3 slaying of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators at a public housing project in the impoverished southeast section of the city.

When all the hoopla and commemoration of Greensboro 1960 is over this time -- this will be the third time "the boys" have come back to Woolworth's for anniversary breakfasts -- Greensboro, 1980, will remain -- a hazy, leftover reminder of what it symbolized to the nation 20 years ago of what the "civil rights revolution" has and has not done for America's black.

The four men -- McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., Joseph McNeil and David Richmond -- will eat at Woolworth's because the store invited them back. But the fact is there is hardly anywhere else downtown to eat. The S.H. Kress store a block away, which was also a target of the 1960 sit-ins, closed several years ago.

Ravished by the success of suburban shopping malls, the downtown retail sector is almost out of business. There are 10 vacant buildings in the two-block area that used to be the heart of downtown. Not a single department store is open. Even Sears, Roebuck & Co., usually a bedrock of worker-oriented trade, has left.

Across the street from Woolworth's, black men and women in cloth coats, mittens and knit caps -- mill workers, domestics with shopping bags and others -- still gather to catch buses home, huddling against the wind in the boarded-up doorways of what used to be Belk's Department Store. They wait for the buses to come. Over the years, those buses have become an increasingly less dependable way to get around town.

The construction workers and asphalt pavers still stop by the H&H grill on Gorrell Street after work. There a can of beer served in a paper cup costs 70 cents, and two can eat a dinner of fried fish, greens, pinto beans and cornbread for less than $7. The grill and the immediate environs used to be a haunt of college students and street dudes. Now the area has been made over with rambling ranchstyle houses that sell for around $50,000.

The action these days is at the Star Club Disco. Billed as a private club for young professionals -- there's a $60 annual membership fee -- it offers an evening happy hour that attracts many of the new young black middle-classers who gather after work for white wine, cocktails and talk.

Wednesday night the debate concerned participation in Saturday's march against Klan violence.Some controversy has surrounded the event, because the Communist Workers Party, sponsor of the November demonstration at which five persons were killed, plans to take part.

One 40ish state vocational counselor said he had no intention of taking part in the march. "The issue to me is these three rightist groups," he said, meaning the communist, the Klan and the American Nazi Party, all alleged to have had a part in the November shootings. "Particulary of the three, the most dangerous are the communists," he said. No one gave him a political primer.

Bob Davis, a 36-year-old sociologist, shook his head. "We have become very individualized. We've moved from a group orientation. We are becoming more apathetic about what's happening to not only blacks but also to other minorities," Davis said. "The big thing among students)$ is getting out of school with a BA degree and making $20,000. I keep telling them it's unrealistic."

Shirley Frye, the wife of Greensboro's black delegate in the state legislature, lawyer Henry Frye, remembers traveling around the state in the early 1960s with her husband, then an assistant U.S. attorney, and being turned away from certain hotels. She knew why, she recalled the other day.

Frye was that night at a basketball game in the new and still shiny sports hall at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where another symbol of the change was apparent. The all-black team from A&T had just played an integrated team from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and lost in overtime.

Twenty years ago, one A&T fan recalled, there would not have been such match-ups. And if there had been, the slightly disgruntled fan added. "The T" would probably have won, because those were the days when most of the best black athletes had very little choice but to go to black schools like A&T. Now schools like the traditionally white North Caroline State University in Raleigh field all-black starting teams -- and win.

Blacks now live in most neighborhoods in Greensboro, on longer clustered in the southeast section near A&T and Bennett College, a traditionally all-black women's school. "You can live anywhere you want to," said Joe Graves, for 16 years a laborer at Cone Mills. "If you can afford the price."

Graves no longer has to drink from a water fountain at Cone labeled "colored," no longer has to use the "colored" bathroom, and can eat his lunch in the plant canteen with everyone else. To him that's progress.

Sandra Adams, born in Greensboro two years after the sit-ins and now a freshman nursing student at A&T cannot recall ever being told by her parents to avoid certain places in the city because she was black and would be turned away. Adams graduated from the previously all-white Page High School and, she said, never experienced the Jim Crow traditions of America's South. "My grandmother could probably tell you a lot about that," she said.

Weldon Johnson, a 22-year-old A&T student who has lived in Greensboro a dozen years, has known discrimination. But he and his classmates don't talk about politics and race that much these days.

"They're concerned with the gas situation. Most of them have cars and drive, most of them stay off-campus. I think a lot about the draft. That affects me directly."

Have things gotten better for blacks in the city? a visitor asks Johnson.

"That's a hard question," he responded. "I haven't checked into it myself."