On June 9, 1960, just after 1 pm, about a dozen people walked into the People’s Drug Store at 4709 Lee Highway in Cherrydale and began what would become a peaceful County-wide demonstration for the right of all people to be served at what had historically been white-only lunch counters. Although African Americans could patronize stores as clientele, employees refused to serve customers of color at the lunch counters within the stores. In February of the same year, students had protested at a segregated lunch counter at an F. W. Woolworth department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and had sparked a series of similar sit-ins throughout the South. In response, Virginia’s Governor Lindsay Almond passed three bills through the Virginia Assembly that criminalized trespassing to attempt to prevent similar picketing in the Commonwealth.
Inspired by the protests in Greensboro, several Howard University students founded an integrated group of activists against segregation and racism under the name of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG.) In June 1960 this group, which included Lawrence Henry, Dion Diamond, Joan Trumpauer (now Mulholland), Charles Cobb, David Hartsough, Helene Wilson, Walter De Legall, Paul Carr, Ethelene Crocker, Cornelia Greene, Paul Dietrich, Jean Donnelly, Mike Proctor, James E. Browne, Emily Malkin, William Griffin, and Clyde McDowell, organized demonstrations over various days at seven lunch counters across Arlington. The demonstrations featured black protestors buying goods to establish themselves as customers, while black and white protestors ordered food at the counters. Then the white protestors passed their food to the black protestors to de facto desegregate the counters. Demonstrators sometimes engaged employees in conversations about desegregation, but often sat reading the Bible in silence or to each other.
While the protestors remained peaceful, crowds often gathered to watch, question, or harass them. The police were called repeatedly to both question the demonstrators’ presence and to protect them from groups of neo-Nazis led by George Lincoln Rockwell, Arlington resident and leader of the American Nazi Party.
After 11 days of nonviolent protests and negotiations, the F. W. Woolworth in Shirlington was the first to announce that its store would serve indiscriminately at 1 pm on June 22. By the end of that day, four other major Arlington retailers announced that their lunch counters likewise would be integrated — Lansburgh’s, Kann’s, Drug Fair, and People’s Drug Store. Other establishments both in Arlington and Alexandria, including Hecht’s, McCrory’s five and dime stores, G.C. Murphy’s, the Waffle Shops, and Hot Shoppes, quickly followed suit and desegregated their lunch counters within days.
As June 2020 marks the 60th anniversary of Arlington County’s lunch counter sit-ins, it is important to remember the twenty determined people who took a stand against unfair discriminatory practices. Their bravery and advocacy helped change Arlington, Alexandria, and surrounding communities and represented an important and visible step toward desegregation.
As part of the commemoration program for this anniversary and the greater civil rights efforts achieved in Arlington, the Historic Preservation Program is proud to partner with Arlington County’s Public Art Program, Arlington Transit, and Arlington Art’s Art on the ART bus and Arlington Art Truck to bring visiting artist Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. to Arlington to create commemorative letter-press cards featuring quotes by local history makers to bring attention to the places, people, and events that are often overlooked in our collective memory of Arlington. Mr. Kennedy creates prints, posters, and postcards and is inspired by proverbs, sayings, and quotes that are significant to the place where he is working.
In Spring 2020, look for the Arlington Art Truck at Farmer’s Markets and other events where you can print your own commemorative card. These letter-pressed cards honor the 60th anniversary of the lunch counter sit-ins that occurred in Arlington, Virginia from June 9 to June 22, 1960. The sit-ins were protests to challenge widespread segregation policies. There are seven cards designed by Amos Kennedy to commemorate each of the sit-in protests. For each location the truck visits, we will have one of the seven cards available to print. To collect all seven, you must visit the Arlington Art Truck each week! In addition, there will be seven cards specially printed for the Art on the ART bus, a mobile gallery on one of Arlington County’s ART public transit buses. Available to a wide audience, the bus circulates on different routes each day.