Zachary McKiernan, Professor, Cuesta College

Proposal Type


  • Seeking Additional Presenters
  • Seeking Specific Expertise
  • Seeking General Feedback and Interest
Related Topics
  • Civic Engagement
  • Memory
  • Oral History

On February 10, 1960, students from Hampton Institute staged Virginia’s first lunch counter demonstrations; a movement that morphed into economic boycotts, picket lines, and voter registration drives.  In 2015, local stakeholders began to recover this history through archival research, commemorative work at the former F.W. Woolworth in Hampton, and collaboration with sit-in veterans.  This resulted in the public history project “Virginia’s First Lunch-Counter Sit-In Demonstration: A Public Key to Civil Rights and Responsibilities,” funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.  This project’s work will center our discussion in an effort to move towards more oral histories, community conversations on race, and a documentary film.


On February 10, 1960, nine days after the Greensboro Four re-ignited a non-violent, sit-in strategy that helped usher in a new era in the modern civil rights movement, three smartly dressed Hampton Institute students departed their campus in the direction of downtown Hampton.  They arrived at the city’s main thoroughfare, Queens Way, and promptly entered F.W. Woolworth.  Their goal: to desegregate the segregated lunch counter and challenge directly Jim Crow discrimination in Virginia.  Though they were not served, the three students remained sitting at the lunch counter for approximately three hours without incident.  When the lunch counter closed later in the afternoon, the students returned to the campus, where “the student body praised their efforts and pledged themselves to fight discrimination at the lunch counter,” according to student leaders Donnie L. Everette and Kennel A. Jackson, Jr.  The next day, 200 Hampton students returned to F.W. Woolworth and a week and a half later, on February 20, students from the historically black college staged mass demonstrations involving over 600 students.  The original protest at F.W. Woolworth on February 10—the first sit-in protests in Virginia—had steadily spread to other segregated locales in Hampton and the neighboring cities of Newport News, Norfolk, and Portsmouth.  In less than two months, a majority of Hampton Institute students challenged Jim Crow segregation at a variety of public places, though the students’ actions were not limited to the singular strategy of sitting-in.  Nor were they confined to the immediacy of actions in February and March, 1960.

In 2015, community stake-holders—current Hampton University students, community activists, museum professionals, me—mobilized around the memory of these events, began archival work, and reached out to sit-in veterans.  As Black Lives Matter emerged in the wake of Ferguson and similar incidents of racial injustice across the country, we rallied to re-examine the 1960s sit-in strategies and legacies.  Partnering with the City of Hampton History Museum, we (activist-author-oral historian Linda Holmes and I) secured a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to conduct oral histories with twelve sit-in veterans and host three community conversations on race relations and civil rights at the museum.  This work was completed between October 2016 and April 2017—and we are hopeful to take the “next step” by sharing it and networking with folks

If you have a direct offer of assistance, sensitive criticism, or wish to pass along someone’s contact information confidentially, please get in contact directly: Zachary McKiernan, [email protected]

If you have general ideas or feedback to share, please feel free to use the comments feature below.

All feedback and offers of assistance should be submitted by July 2, 2017.


1 comment
  1. Benjamin Filene says:

    It would be great if you could connect with other institutions that are working to tell similar stories and see if you can find a shared theme or question to address–for instance, how to make this story come alive for young people or how to deal with the problem of retelling stories that they have told many times before (and influenced by other media portrayals). One possibility would be the people at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, site of the first Woolworths sit-in (director is John Swaine: [email protected]). Or the Center of Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta, which has a powerful exhibit on the lunch counters.

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