This audio clip is an interview with one of the original Royal Ice Cream Seven, Virginia Williams, who was one of the very first known groups to protest a sit-in at a food establishment. She recounts the time leading up to the Royal Ice Cream protest and the folks involved in the Civil Rights movement in the Durham area.
When reading about the Civil Rights movement, or simply perusing more information about it, you are unquestionably going to learn about the power of four college students at a lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. In fact, a search on Google for ‘first Civil Rights sit-in’ will prompt a little box with a blurb about the infamous lunch counter that “sparked a national conversation about civil rights.”
However, the lunch counter sit-in wasn’t an idea conceived and born of independent idea, but a part of a movement that started several years prior right in Durham, NC. At a small neighborhood ice cream parlor called the Royal Ice Cream Bar, seven men in women chose to stage a sit in on June 23rd, 1957. This lesser known event created a cascade of other sit-ins in the Durham area, as well as a court case that addressed the legality of segregation. (1)
“It was in 1957 when the sit-ins started in NC, in Durham, NC, and that if anybody says it was in Greensboro first, are a — what do you call it? — a bald-faced lie.” (2)
The food story told by this sit-in is an important one. The Royal Ice Cream Bar was located in Hayti, the now historic black neighborhood of Durham. Although the Royal was located right in Hayti, had two separate entrances to the establishment, one for whites and one for ‘coloreds’. The entrance for white folk led to an area with booths and seating and full wait staff service, while the ‘colored’ side was an entirely different affair. You entered and stood and waited while the staff attended to the white customers first. After ordering, a black patron had to then back out and exit onto the street again. (3)
I think it is incredibly important to take a moment to consider context. Imagine it is summer, and you are a kid out playing in your neighborhood with your friends. The Royal Ice Cream Bar is a part of your neighborhood, and yet you can’t go in and get service. You may run in and wait, and wait, and wait while other customers get served before you, then cast back out onto the hot street. Yet, this building sits where you live, where your friends live. This sort of oppression through food service is a sort of social warfare, a lowering of others through food, one of the most basic of human rights. This demand for food equality did not go unnoticed, and subsequent sit-ins and protests related to food equality topped drew numbers in the thousands.
- https://durhamcountylibrary.org/exhibits/dcrhp/interviews/interviewtranscriptwilliams.pdf (This is the text transcript of Virginia Williams’ interview.)
- https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/sohp/id/10417 (This is a link to the audio recording of the interview, from the Southern Oral History Program, it is too large to embed directly)