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The Power of Black Women’s Political Labor Remembered

Bennett College and the Civil Rights Movement 

Greensboro, North Carolina, is best known for the 1960 sit-ins that sparked a massive student movement to desegregate the South. Despite not being fully acknowledged as leaders in that movement, Black women students from Bennett College were vital to the political climate that made the sit-ins possible and sustained the local movement in the years after. Several Bennett Belles, as they are called, organized actions that have gone unnoticed and nearly lost to history as their contributions have been overshadowed by a male-centered narrative focused narrowly on what took place at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960. One of these events is a 1957 boycott of the Carolina Theatre.

In April 1957, clergymen were invited to a screening of the film The Ten Commandments at the segregated Theatre. Most ministers entered the building using the customary procedures of segregation. However, Reverend Melvin C. Swann, the well-known Black minister of Bethel AME Church, attempted to enter the Theatre “on a non-segregated basis,” through the entrance reserved for whites. Swann was denied entry and left the Theatre, refusing to sit in the segregated balcony. His story traveled down the street to nearby Bennett College, one of two historically Black colleges for women, very quickly. The educational model the institution embraced, which called for Black women to engage in civic matters, made it a well-positioned space for political organizing. Bennett Belles sprang into action and seized the opportunity to galvanize their community around Reverend Swann’s experience.

According to archival records, the students consulted with Edward Edmunds, a trusted professor and political organizer. For his part, Edmunds told them to talk to President Willa B. Player. In their first meeting with Player, students expressed concern about the timing of events. Spring break was approaching and soon students would leave town. Player told them that they would have to disregard time and make a decision. After much discussion, they decided to move forward despite the risks. She advised the group to poll their sister Belles, as well as male students from nearby North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (now N.C. A&T State University) and local clergymen, to determine how many would support an organized effort to refrain from attending the Theatre. Before they knew it, Grace Dungee, Paula Edmunds, Ann Stewart, Delores Tonkins, Sonja Weldon, Yvonne Griffin, Wilhemina Bundy, Janice Robinson, Joan Jenkins, and Sonja Louden were planning a boycott.

As student organizer Delores Tonkins described it, “this is not a movement of revenge. We are not rushing to the side of noble Reverend Swann. This is a passive Christian movement.” When Bennett women visited church congregations to gain support for the boycott, they explained, “It is our purpose to develop within ourselves a greater sense of moral worth and human dignity by refusing to pay for humiliation and by refusing to accept second-class citizenship through attending segregated theaters. We believe that segregation in any form is a direct violation of Christian principles and diminishes our stature as women.” Because their college placed a special emphasis on respectable behavior, a perfectly coiffed feminine aesthetic, and an educational model that was deeply connected to the communal expectations of Black women as “uplifters” of their race, students also experienced segregation as a slap in the face to their accomplishments and their status within their community as women.

While the 1957 boycott did not result in the desegregation of the Carolina Theatre, it was these sorts of campaigns and actions that laid a solid foundation for what was to come in the early 1960s. Additionally, 1957 was not the first or last shining moment of Bennett Belle leadership. Twenty years prior, in 1937, they organized pickets at the Carolina Theatre to protest the theatre’s practice of removing film scenes that portrayed African American actors in less subservient positions. In the late 1950s, Bennett students like Rosalyn Cheagle were sent to Highlander Folk School to train in the techniques of non-violence. They formed a chapter of the NAACP and worked with church congregations to organize actions and campaigns for racial justice. Two students, Shirley Hawkins and Jean Neff, participated in the 1960 conference at Shaw University where SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) was founded.

Many Bennett alumnae have repeatedly testified about their involvement in the planning phase of the sit-ins in late 1959. Alumnae like Linda Brown, valedictorian of the class of 1961 and the College’s Willa B. Player Distinguished Professor of Humanities, have told their stories in oral history interviews, newspaper articles, and books, and yet their legacy has yet to be fully realized. In ironic similarity to decisions they faced about the timing of the boycott in 1957, Bennett Belles were forced to decide if they should wait until winter break was over to carry out their plans for a sit-in. According to their testimony, Dr. Player advised them to wait until they returned in January of 1960 to continue their plans. Heeding her advice they postponed any action.

Gender influenced how the sit-in movement and other campaigns played out in Greensboro, and how they are remembered. Many organizers regarded Bennett women, and women in general, as liabilities to the movement. As Dr. Esther Terry, class of 1961 and former President of Bennett explained in an oral history interview: “And Dr. [Hobart] Jarrett had said to them, “Well, you girls shouldn’t get engaged in doing that alone,” because, you know, this is the “girls must be protected,” right? So, they were encouraged to invite the A&T boys to sit with them and to plan this sit-in and what it would be, because, you see, we’re talking about something that could be very dangerous.” The cautionary advice of Jarrett, and the more conservative opinion that women should not be on the front lines at all, was prevalent throughout the movement.

A few days after four young men from North Carolina A&T sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch-counter, Bennett women joined them. Their actions quickly attracted large numbers of college-age demonstrators. Many were women from Greensboro’s surrounding colleges and universities. The Intercollegiate Council for Racial Equality formed and Bennett women served in leadership positions. Bennett Student Government President Gloria Brown co-chaired the planning committee for mass demonstrations with A&T student Edward Pitt. In addition to participating in the sit-ins, Bennett women organized and executed a voter registration campaign called Operation Doorknock, in the spring of 1960.

Operation Doorknock was a community wide effort that sent Bennett students into surrounding working-class Black neighborhoods to register eligible voters. Voting was not unheard of in Greensboro’s Black community, and the danger African Americans faced for registering to vote in places like Mississippi, was not typical in Greensboro. However, this campaign was significant because it challenged notions of class divide. Bennett women, who were seen as the epitome of middle-class respectability, entered the homes of their working-class neighbors and accompanied them to registration sites at nearby community centers. As Dr. Player stated, these efforts challenged, “the separation of town and gown.” In the spring of 1960, as the sit-ins were in full-swing, Bennett women picketed businesses by day and registered voters by night. Their activism continued and between 1963 and 1964 hundreds of Bennett women were arrested and jailed for participating in demonstrations.

Every year on February 1, ceremonies of remembrance take place to honor the sit-in movement. Each year Greensboro pays tribute to the four North Carolina A&T State University students—all young Black men—who sat down at that lunch-counter on February 1, 1960. And rightfully so. Their actions were incredibly brave, honorable, and influential. As time has progressed, more Bennett women have shared their stories as well. Currently there are at least five academic historians who are researching and writing about activism at Bennett College. These new narratives that analyze Bennett Belles’ contributions are important for several reasons.

Many historians have made it their mission to locate Black women’s stories in the archives and ensure their contributions are incorporated into the mainstream narrative. It is necessary to acknowledge the contributions of Bennett women in order to develop a more accurate narrative of the past; one that shows how notions of gender influenced organizing strategies and memories of what happened. When we acknowledge their labor, we gain a fuller picture of how the movement unfolded and the foundations that were laid early on. We see how the racialized and gendered experiences of Black women under white supremacy were often galvanizing points for whole communities to defy segregation and racial violence. How Black women’s political labor has been remembered in Greensboro is indicative of a larger narrative problem of the civil rights movement and of history in general. We often look to single leader narratives, or four leaders in this case, and too often those leaders are men. But as Ella Baker said, “the movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement.” And quite often, it was Black women who generated and sustained the local movements that made the men.

Jennifer Ash is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and a Graduate Concentrator in Gender and Women’s Studies, at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

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  • Judy

    Thank you, Jennifer for this piece! I’m researching now a historical subject, Miss Elma Lewis of Boston, who made tremendous contributions to the Black Arts Movement and to Boston’s political and civic life from 1950-1980. I totally resonate with your line here, “Many historians have made it their mission to locate Black women’s stories in the archives and ensure their contributions are incorporated into the mainstream narrative.” Thank you for telling the story of the Bennett Belles! Bennett College was my first college campus I visited — it holds a special place in my coming of age story.

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