Organizer reflects on High Point sit-ins 61 years later

Black History Month

HIGH POINT, N.C. — Most historians and writers say the sit-ins at a High Point Woolworth 61 years ago were the first to be organized by high school students.

Being the first wasn’t the goal for most of the students from what was then William Penn High School. The goal was to fight and defeat injustice. The movement was created by four teenagers. Mary Lou Blakeney was one of the leaders and lives in High Point. At the time of the sit-ins, Blakeney was 15 years old. She remembers time moving slowly in the face of a constant surge of energy that was pumping through High Point’s African American high school.

“School was buzzing, so somebody had already leaked it,” said Blakeney.

The word was definitely out. Teachers and staff didn’t say it out loud, but the looks the students got when they walked the halls spoke volumes.

“‘We are counting on you. Represent. Be careful,'” said Blakeney.

Under the teachings of Reverend B. Elton Cox, the final group of 26 teenagers were practicing and preparing to sit at the whites-only lunch counter at the Woolworth in downtown High Point.

“Non-violence, you had to take the oath. And if you didn’t take the oath, you couldn’t be a part of it,” Blakeney said.

February 11, 1960, the group left Penn High School, walked to Woolworth’s and entered the store from Wrenn Street around 4 p.m. and sat down.

“Somebody got up, and somebody walked over and sat down and the person jumped up next to them like they were scolded,” recalled Blakeney.

Eventually all 26 had a seat at the whites only lunch counter. The police and staff were clearly shocked.

“The waitress backing into the counter behind her like, ‘Is she going through it?'” said Blakeney.

While they sat, so many emotions ran through Blakeney.

“Scary, because your back is open to space and if anything is coming at you, you couldn’t see it.”

Customers began yelling and screaming at the 26 teenagers. And their fear turned to concern. Would someone in the angry crowd harm teenagers, especially the young men?

“They seem to be the targets, first. We were afraid for them, sometimes more than we were for ourselves,” described Blakeney.

The lights went out and the store closed. Despite the hate from others and their own worries, the 26 teens were determined to come back.

“When we left, we were singing. When we got back to the YMCA and YWCA, we said a prayer and went home. But the girls fell into each other’s arms. Why? Because of the relief and the release,” said Blakeney.

The group held more sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter along with sit-ins at other public places. The February 11th monument now stands near the door where the students entered on Wrenn Street. And on every February 11th, the High Point community gathers to honor and celebrate the people that broke down racial walls and perhaps, motivate the next generation to ensure those walls are never rebuilt.

“I would advise them to pray, to stand up, get up and stand up and understand what it is you want and understand what is wrong,” said Blakeney.

Mary Lou Blakeney is a retired nurse and former High Point City Council member. Blakeney continues to be active in the community.

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