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Almost-forgotten History

Submitted by Tully on Sun, 10/29/2006 - 4:46pm

Some people are quite rightly remembered and renowned in the history books for their lives and achievements. Many more, no less deserving, slip into the shadows of history and are forgotten.

In Wichita, Kansas, near the corner of Broadway and Douglas, there is a small plaza tucked in between two buildings. On one wall of the plaza is a sculpture of a lunch counter with several people sitting at it. It's so very life-like that in nice weather people routinely sit down on the empty stools to eat their lunches at the counter. There is no plaque to explain the sculpture.

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If there were, that plaque would note that on July 19, 1958, several black teenagers, members of the local NAACP chapter, entered the downtown Dockum Drug Store (then the largest drug store chain in the state) and sat down at the lunch counter. They were ignored. They kept coming back and sitting at the counter, from before lunch through the dinner hour, at least twice a week for the next several weeks. They sat quietly, creating no disturbance, but refusing to leave without being served.

The store tried to wait them out by ignoring them. They kept coming back and sitting there, silently, day after day, waiting to be served. On one occasion three police officers tried to coerce and intimidate the teenagers to leave, and succeeded. But they came back, and the police did not return. They were breaking no law, only a store policy, and the store was not willing to challenge them directly.

A group of local white toughs came by trying to intimidate them. The police were called to break it up but left immediately without challenging the whites, saying they had instructions to keep their hands off. After an emergency phone call a group of local black men arrived, armed, to defend the protesters. The white youths retreated, leaving the store.

And the young people kept coming back and sitting there at the lunch counter, silently, day after day, waiting to be served.

They asked for help and support from the national NAACP, but the national organization refused to endorse or even acknowledge their actions. The confrontational tactic was against NAACP policy. The national newswires picked it up and the story went out on the national wire, but few papers ran it and it quickly vanished.

On August 11, while the early arrivals were sitting at the counter waiting for their friends to show, a white man around 40 walked in and looked at them for several minutes. Then he looked at the store manager, and said, simply, "Serve them. I'm losing too much money." He then walked back out. That man was the owner of the Dockum drug store chain.

That day the lawyer [Chester Lewis--see updates below] for the local NAACP branch called the store's state offices, and was told by the chain vice-president that "he had instructed all of his managers, clerks, etc., to serve all people without regard to race, creed or color." State-wide. They had won, completely. Their actions inspired others, and the sit-in movement spread to Oklahoma City. By the middle of 1959, the national NAACP was losing disaffected members for refusing to endorse the scattered but spreading sit-in protests, gave in, and sponsored the Greensboro sit-ins.

Nineteen months before the Greensboro sit-ins that have been credited with being the start of the civil rights sit-in movement, it really began at a downtown drug store in Wichita, Kansas. The Dockum sit-ins were largely ignored by the NAACP in their archives, probably out of embarrasment, and were unknown even to many civil rights historians. That error was corrected by the NAACP this summer.

Something important started there in Wichita near the corner of Broadway and Douglas. Those who started it were almost forgotten by history. Almost, but not quite. And today, on a small plaza tucked in between two buildings in downtown Wichita, Kansas is a sculpture of a lunch counter with several people sitting at it. It has no plaque to explain it.

Some day soon, it will.

[Welcome, Instapundit readers! Please feel free to poke around and check out our cozy home, which sports an assortment of centered commentary on everything from current political issues, religion, military strategy and tactics, amusing YouTube videos and the truly random. No club card required. Dissent and discussion welcomed, we ask only that you play nice and respect others. For more on the history of this sculpture, see this comment. The pictures in this post were taken and copyrighted by me, but may be used freely with attribution to this post as source. A note to let us know you're using them would be nice too, but is not required. Please don't hotlink 'em, just go ahead and copy.]

UPDATE: A reader forwards this link about a successful Iowa protest in 1948 that involved sit-ins, though it was eventually won through the courts and not the protests. It certainly took no less courage for the protesters. These are the real roots of the civil rights movement, the folks who organized and acted locally and at great risk to themselves, and we need to hear more about them and record what they did while they're still around.

Which was why I wrote this post in the first place. There were other sit-ins before Dockum, even in Wichita--but the Dockum protest was the first that worked, and it opened up Dockum/Rexall stores statewide. That earlier attempts failed where the Dockum protest succeeded does not make the earlier efforts any less heroic.

UPDATE December 2006: Reader Elaine from Wichita reports in the comments below that the Wichita Park Board voted on 12/11/2006 to re-name the pocket park the Chester I. Lewis Park. The change will still have to be reviewed by an advisory board and approved by the City Council.

Chester I. Lewis (1929-1990) was the Wichita attorney and local NAACP chapter head who helped organize the Dockum sit-in, and who mentored the youth involved. He later became a staff attorney for the national NAACP and was deeply involved in the national civil rights movement as one of the "Young Turks" who moved the NAACP from a strictly legislative agenda to a more confrontational (but non-violent) agenda.

UPDATE January 2007: On January 9th, the Wichita City Council, with attendees including Chester Lewis' daughter Brenda, unanimously voted to APPROVE renaming Reflection Square Park the Chester I. Lewis Park.

UPDATE August 2008: See new post on the 50th anniversary celebration of the Dockum Sit-ins.

Dockum Store Sit-Ins

Hello everyone:
I am a proud member of the Wichita Branch NAACP.

In July the National NAACP recognized the youth of the 1958 sit-in and presented a plaque to the present NAACP President.
I am happy to report that on October 21, 2006 our branch held its Annual Freedom Fund Banquet in which we honored the youth from the 1958 sit-ins of the Dockum Drug Stores. We had in attendance 17 of those youth along with the youth advisor, Mrs. Hughes and the youth president, Ron Walters.
On December 11, 2006 the Wichita Park Board unanimously voted to change the name of Heritage Park, in which the lunch counter sits, to Chester I Lewis Park. Mr. Lewis was an important attorney who represented the local NAACP during the time. Also, after further research, the Park Board found that the sculpture WAS commissioned to depict the Sit-Ins, they are not certain why that information has not been passed on through the years. The Park Boards recommendation for the name change still has to be approved by the Wichita City Council.
But before all this The Kansas African American Museum honored a handful of the participants of November 4, 2000.
The struggle continues
If anyone would like more information please let me know

Welcome, Elaine!

Elaine,

Thanks for stopping by. It's a beautiful statue and a moving story. Good luck with the name change before the City Council. Please come back and let us know how it goes!

Thanks, Elaine!

You should be very proud of the Wichita NAACP (both 1958's and today's). It was those teenage Youth members of the chapter who held the sit-in, and their counterparts nearly a half-century later who pushed the issue, bought the history of the Dockum sit-in back into the light, and who brought about the national organization's recognition of what they had ignored for so long. Their perseverance is an inspiration.

But, just to be picky...the park up for re-naming (where the sculpture sits) is Reflection Square Park. Not "Reflection Park" as I mis-called it, nor Heritage Square Park, which is the one tucked in a block or two over, behind the County Museum and the old library building.

Not your bad at all, but mine and the Park Board's. The Park Board mistakenly titled the 12/11 agenda item "Heritage Square Park," which has led to some confusion, but the actual item discussed and voted was for the correct park. Next stop, City Council!

Chester Lewis' step son Steve Hurley

Dear Friends,
I have looked my whole life for Chester Lewis' step son, Steve Hurley, who moved from Wichita his senior year. I cared deeply for him and would like to find him, if anyone knows his whereabouts. I knew Chester Lewis personally and went to his house many times. I was only a kid but I know that he was very active in civil rights and was very respected by all in the Wichita Community. If you know Steve's whereabouts please email me at lisaww2007@yahoo.com
Thank you. Lisa Wadsworth

The story is

The story is lovely.

Unfortunately it is not related to this sculpture. The store with the sit-in was down the block. The building is still there.

This counter is there to be whimsical. Part of a groups of 30 sculptures along Douglas. Just a coincidence.

Though the story is still worth telling.

Au contraire

You really need to read through the comments thread first, Keith. The placement of the sculpture was not a coincidence* and the naming of the park after Chester I. Lewis, the adult organizer of the Dockum sit-in, is not even remotely a coincidence.

[*--The site of the old Woolworth's was used because it was available for the park after the building was condemned and removed, and the Dockum site was (is) still in use and was not available.]

correction

Keith is right about the location and partially right that the sculptor said she had heard about the sit-in but was not actually making a sculpture of it however liked the association...so not fully coincidence and not fully intentional recognition of the sit-in. Watch the documentary on this sit-in on Channel 8 KPTS during the month of FEbruary. Many of the participants were interviewed extensively during 2008 and made it come to life. To read about it, see Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-72 (2001/07), Ch. 1. Thanks to Susan Miner we have a documentary film to preserve this history of courage, tenacity, and ultimately social change.

Dockum Drug Store Lunch Counter Sculpture

I paid my second visit to Wichita this summer to help care for my granddaughter while her mom was deployed to school. While here I made it a point of getting out to see Wichita. It is a lovely city. I was intrigued by the sculptures on Douglas Street and "surfed the net" for more information. I LOVED the story of the Dockum Drug Store Sit-Ins, and I sincerely hope, by the time I get back to Wichita, to see a plaque explaining the wonderful importance of the lunch counter sculpture. Although only a visitor, I am proud of you, Wichita!

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