St. Louis’s Forgotten Sit-In Story

Long before four male African American college students held their February 1, 1960, sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, St. Louisans were using the tactic to push for a change in their city’s segregated dining establishments.

Pearl Maddox and the Citizens Civil Rights Committee

“Female members of the Citizens Civil Rights Committee were the true movers and shakers behind the lunch counter sit-ins.”—T. D. McNeal

Black-and-white photo of sit-in at Stix, Baer & FullerCCRC members sitting in at the Stix, Baer & Fuller lunch counter, July 1944. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

St. Louis’s history of peaceful sit-in protests began in the middle of World War II, a time when blacks had grown tired of being asked to defend democracy and civil rights abroad without being afforded equal rights back home.

Five women—some white, some black, and all members of the newly created Citizens Civil Rights Committee (CCRC)—made history on May 15, 1944, by holding St. Louis’s first organized lunch counter sit-in. It began that evening when the women seated themselves at the downtown Stix, Baer & Fuller lunch counter and remained there until it closed. During that time the African American women in the group, including CCRC leader Pearl Maddox, were never served.

CCRC held similar interracial sit-ins weekly at Stix and the other two downtown department stores, Famous-Barr and Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney, throughout May, June, and July. A public statement released by the group in 1944 noted that although no white customers had abandoned their meals or refused to enter the establishments because blacks were present, the managers’ had claimed their white customers would never be comfortable dining with blacks.

Black-and-white photo of CCRC protesters standing outside Scruggs storeCCRC protesters standing outside of the downtown Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney location, summer 1944. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Because the managers clearly required further convincing, a group of 40 black women and 15 white women visited the three lunch counters on July 8, 1944. Carrying signs that read “A Nazi’s bullet knows no prejudice” and “Fox holes are democratic, are you?” the women sat down together and waited to be served. Although all three lunch counters closed for the day instead of feeding the CCRC women, the large-scale sit-in was a success in that it attracted attention. Thousands of handbills were distributed outside the stores, and the white-owned St. Louis Post-Dispatch finally printed a story about the group’s efforts.

CCRC’s sit-in campaign ended the following year without achieving true desegregation in the city’s dining establishments. It did, however, inspire another group that identified strongly with the principles of nonviolent direct action.

CORE’s Drive to Achieve Victory without Violence

“The whole idea of CORE from the beginning was to win over to our way of thinking people who were initially opposed to what we were trying to accomplish.”—Irv Dagen

The interracial Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) formed out of a small discussion group in 1947 and set its sights on desegregating St. Louis’s restaurants, with full procedures in place for doing so. CORE members would contact various owners and managers and ask them to weigh the benefits of desegregating their businesses. These polite conversations might happen multiple times before a dining establishment agreed to desegregate—if it ever did. Those that didn’t, particularly Stix, Baer & Fuller, received a more public message.

CORE began its direct-action campaign at Stix in 1948 by contacting the store’s leaders. When that proved futile, members began distributing leaflets titled “All We Ask Is Fair Play” and “The Grand Leader—in Everything but Democracy” to explain how Stix was treating African Americans and encourage customers to let the store’s managers know that this was wrong. After months of passing out informational flyers, CORE members headed inside.

Black-and-white photo of CORE demonstrators at downtown Woolworth'sCORE members sitting in at the downtown Woolworth's lunch counter in the late 1940s. Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection.

In early 1949 two white CORE members sat down at the Stix lunch counter and ordered food. After it arrived, they were joined by four black CORE members. The six individuals then proceeded to eat together. The white CORE members ordered dessert, which they were also planning to share, before Stix staff placed Closed signs on the counter.

Smaller sit-ins followed with similar results, but the CORE members had discovered something that they believed should appease Stix’s management. In an April 12, 1949, letter, CORE members noted that “white customers continued to sit at the counter and eat, even sitting in seats next to the Negroes.” Stix remained silent, so CORE kicked its efforts into high gear, launching weekly Saturday sit-ins with anywhere from 20 to 30 members taking up some of the 97 available seats. The book Victory without Violence describes one especially large Stix sit-in.

One Saturday, fifty-seven CORE people sat at the first-floor counter all day. Demonstrators remained quietly from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, and from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Monday. At first, they sat next to one another. Later, they changed strategy to occupy every other seat. White customers would sit between them and be served. CORE members placed small signs on the counter before them: “We are Being Refused Service,” along with explanatory leaflets.

Black-and-white photo of CORE members and their children outside of Stix downtownCORE members Connie Williams (left) and Billie Teneau (right) after being denied service at the Stix, Baer & Fuller lunch counter, May 1949. Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection.

The sit-ins at Stix’s downtown location lasted for 18 months before CORE decided to focus its efforts elsewhere. Despite the store’s stubborn policy (it didn’t desegregate its lunch counter until 1952), CORE member Charles Oldham recalled that progress was made in the hearts of the employees.

We sat there for eighteen months and we became friendly with the waitresses who wouldn’t serve us and with the security people. They would talk to us and discuss family and so on. I remember, after we left, we came back a year or two later, and they greeted us very happily.

“I Did It Alone”

Not all sit-ins were group affairs. In 1953, Irene Williams, a CORE member and Saint Louis University student, conducted a solitary sit-in at the Woolworth’s near campus, a block off of Route 66. Williams entered the Woolworth’s every Wednesday at noon and settled into her management-assigned seat near the end of the lunch counter—right by a pot where hot soup spilled regularly and a sharpener where large knives were honed before being slid back down the counter. She shared some of her story in Victory without Violence.

Black-and-white photo of the Woolworth's at Grand and OliveThe Woolworth's store at Grand and Olive, where Irene Williams conducted her solitary lunch counter sit-in, ca. 1930. Missouri History Museum.

Most of the women behind the counter were . . . unflinchingly mean-spirited toward me. . . . Yet there was one gentle soul who frequently shoved a bowl of soup toward me and smiled benignly. I made an effort to eat it but had a hard time because I think it was soup that someone else had returned.

After about two months one of the women behind the counter asked me if I wanted to order anything. I said no for two reasons: one was that I never had expected to have the opportunity to order and the other was that I was so sure I would not that I didn’t even take my purse inside but left it in the car.

After that, I was always given the opportunity to order and I always did so. The manager then informed me that I could sit wherever I wanted. . . . Near the end of the semester he met me at the door and said the sit-in was no longer necessary because he was opening the entire store to everyone. I think he even smiled. I know I did, broadly.

Color photo showing Woolworth's sign in MHM's "Route 66" exhibitThe sign from the Woolworth's at Grand and Olive, on display in MHM's Route 66 exhibit.

St. Louis’s Uncommon Approach

A particularly compelling aspect of the St. Louis lunch counter sit-ins is the overall lack of violence. Unlike restaurant sit-ins in the Deep South, where racist laws abounded and protesters were beaten and arrested, the St. Louis sit-ins were met largely with either heartfelt support or the willful denial of change. As CORE member Bonnie Rosen recalled:

We were not verbally or physically abused; we were simply shunned. Waitresses gave us a wide birth, pretending not to see us; and people at other tables avoided looking at us. . . . We were shaking up the status quo, and they didn’t know how to behave. So they pretended we were not there. But we did not go away.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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