Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July/August 2010
New International Civil Rights Musuem In Greensboro: Just One Of Many Places Of Interest In North Carolina's New South
By: Edith Billups

Yvonne Johnson, former mayor of Greensboro, NC, still remembers sitting down at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro on February 2, 1960 to join a protest that would ignite the way for desegregation across the South. Johnson, an 18-yearold freshman at Bennett College for Women, said that when NCA & T University students Joseph A. McNeil, Franklin E. McCain, David L. Richmond and Ezell A. Blair Jr. courageously sat down at the White-only counter on February 1, the word spread like wildfire throughout Greensboro’s Black community. “We met at one of the local churches and said we were all in this together. We were going to make sure things would change,” Johnson said.

Johnson recalls being scared, but explained that “it did not matter. When your soul has been so suppressed, you do what you have to do.” The president of Bennett, a college for African-American women, would stand fully behind her students as they protested in shifts between classes. “Dr. Willa Player, president of Bennett, said she would give out diplomas in jail if she had to,” Johnson recently recalled.  The efforts of the Greensboro Four, Johnson and others, are now permanently documented at the newly opened International Civil Rights Center and Museum at 301 North Elm Street in Greensboro. For African-Americans who want to learn first hand about the first sit-in movement in the nation, the museum takes visitors on a poignant journey through the challenges African-Americans faced in the civil rights struggle.

I recently packed my bags for a five-day visit to Greensboro, Old Salem and Charlotte. I stepped into the past and learned about the rich history that brought about the emerging New South. Touring the 30,000-sq. ft. Civil Rights Museum that spans two floors, I got an up close look at educational exhibits, period artifacts and state-of-the art technology that celebrates the impact of the sit-in movement on civil and human rights issues throughout the world. The museum’s curator and program director, Bamidele Demerson, took visitors through the museum’s “Hall of Shame” that depicts horrific images of blacks being lynched, burned alive, and hosed by firefighters. Before stepping into the hall, one can see an authentic robe worn by a member of the Klu Klux Klan.

Leaving the hall, visitors can see a re-enactment of the Greensboro Four strategizing in their dorm room on the night before they would step into history books. A highlight of the tour is being able to sit at the original lunch counter where the four NCA & T Students sat with thousands over several months before the lunch counter was finally desegregated.  According to Demerson, “It was not cherry pie or a sandwich that these young men wanted, rather they wanted America to live out its promise that all men are created equal. What they wanted on their menu was social justice. African-Americans cooked the food and Whites and African-Americans served it. The students could buy school supplies at Woolworth’s, but not eat there.”  Leaving the museum, I visited several other sites that were prominent in Greensboro’s history, including the Palmer Memorial Institute, founded by Dr. Charlotte Hawkins as a preparatory school for African-Americans. Located just east of Greensboro in Sedalia, the school is now the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum and is the first state historic site to honor an African-American woman. Maria Cole, the widow of singer Nat King Coles is one of its most well known boarders.

Other stops included the African American Atelier Art Gallery, founded by Dr. Alma Adams, a North Carolina State representative and faculty member at Bennett College for Women. The non-profit art organization seeks to promote an awareness, appreciation and sensitivity to the visual arts and culture of African Americans.  Of Greensboro, Adams said, “There has been progress, but we still are trying to mend old wounds. A lot happened here that we are not proud of, but the opening of the Civil Rights Museum is a step in the right direction.” She noted, however, that the African-American community still has much to do. “Sometimes we get too laid back because we feel like we have come so far. But we can get too comfortable.”

While in Greensboro, I checked out the Proximity Hotel, the only LEED Platinum-rated hotel in the nation. The hotel uses 40% less energy and 30% less water than comparable hotels. Owner Dennis Quaintance’s passion for sustainable practices is evident everywhere from local food used in the restaurant’s bistro dishes to the geothermal energy used in the restaurant’s refrigeration equipment. I also dined at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, which features southern cuisine, served in an upscale environment. If visiting, be sure to check out “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer,” performed by the Touring Theatre of North Carolina. The production features stellar acting and gives insight into the life and trials of one of the nation’s unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement.

Leaving Greensboro, I headed off to the town of Old Salem where I got to sit in the pews of St. Phillips Moravian Church, the state’s oldest standing African-American church. Guides pointed out graves of slaves buried on the grounds that date back to the church’s consecration, December 15, 1861. It was here on May 21, 1865 that a Union Army chaplain announced to a full house of slaves that they had been set free two years before by the Emancipation Proclamation. I then set off for Charlotte, named as the growing fastest area in today’s “New South,” checking into the newly opened, 146-room Ritz Carlton.

The hotel marks the brand’s first foray into the environmentally-sound LEED building benchmark for design and features a bi-level penthouse Wellness Center and the street-side BLT Steak restaurant. During my stay, I dined at Mez in the EpiCentre, one of Charlotte’s hottest mixed-use destinations for nightlife entertainment and dining. Mez features a movie-theater, bowling alley, and up-scale restaurant, that blends flavors that criss-cross the globe. A highlight of my visit was a “From Slavery to Freedom Tours,” hosted by Dianna Ward of Charlotte NC Tours, which stopped at prominent African-American neighborhoods like Cherry, Brooklyn and Biddleville, as well as several noted landmarks. These included Johnson C. Smith University, one of the first African-American institutes established after the Civil War in 1867, and the Latta Plantation, which gave an in-depth look at the everyday lives of planters and slaves in backcountry North Carolina.

My visit ended with stops at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture, named after Charlotte’s first African-American mayor. An architectural marvel, the museum hosts works by prominent African-Americans, including Romare Bearden and John Biggers. I also took in a Charlotte Bobcats game at the impressive Time Warner Cable Arena. As I cheered on the home team, it was humbling to know that the team owners, entrepreneur Robert Johnson and basketball great Michael Jordan, were African-American men who had accomplished in the south what other African-Americans could only dream about.

My journey ended at the Levine Museum of the New South, which features the award-winning exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.,” The exhibit depicts life in Charlotte shortly after the Civil War and what the “New South” was to become.  If visiting, historian Dr. Tom Hanchett will point out artifacts that include actual poll tax receipts used to keep poor Blacks and Whites from voting. Look also for photos of the first Blacks to hold textile industry jobs after being banned from that industry for years. Also check out the exhibit, “Changing Places: From Black and White to Technicolor.” The multi-part project explores how people in the region are responding to the growing cultural diversity and change created by the influx of newcomers from across the U.S. and around the globe.