Sit-in at the White Pantry, 1963
Backstory and Context
African Americans used nonviolent and violent protest tactics against segregation of railcars and other forms of public transportation in the late 19th and early 20th century. African Americans held a sit-in to protest racial discrimination at libraries as well, the most famous early protest of this type happening in Alexandria, VA in 1939. During the 1940s, students and community members in northern and western cities held small sit-ins, including a sit-in against the segregated lunch counter at Wichita's Dockhum drug store.
Sit-ins at segregated lunch counters attracted national attention in the spring of 1960 following a sit-in by four college students in Greensboro, NC. On February 1st, four students occupied seats at the lunch counter at a local Woolworth. Additional students joined the protest which grew until over three hundred protesters filled the store on February 5th. News of this protest inspired similar sit-ins throughout North Carolina the following week. By the end of the month, there were sit-ins in dozens of southern cities and hundreds of restaurants and lunch counters ended their policy of racial segregation.
The situation in Huntington mirrored the national trend towards racial integration, but the owner of this particular restaurant refused to serve African Americans even the other restaurants opened their doors to all customers. Few African Americans wished to eat at the White Pantry, which had a reputation of sub-standard food and service, but by 1963, a growing number of Huntingtonians decided that they would challenge the owner's racial bigotry.
During the sit-ins at the White Pantry, the owner physically attacked students and even burned sulfur cakes to release toxic fumes that forced the protesters to leave the premises. Gustavus Cleckly and Cicero Fain were arrested on trespassing charges by the Huntington Police Department. The police later served the two civil rights organizers with "John Doe" warrants. (A "John Doe" warrant is used for the arrest of a person whose name is unknown, and is sometimes used to arrest a person known by sight and not by name).
From an interview conducted in 2020 by Delcie Davis, a former employee during the sit-ins who served as a hostess and cook at the age of 17, more information can be discovered about the tactics and attitudes of the restaurant owner. Davis confirmed that the owner used many of the tactics that harmed the student protesters but did not believe that the owner ever used a cattle prod. However, she indicated that even after the restaurant was ordered to serve all customers, he declared that the law "did not dictate how I cook" and deliberately sent raw and under-cooked meals to African American patrons. While she was employed for years as a hostess, she often times worked as a short order cook when needed. She indicated that this would sometimes result in altercations as black patrons responded to the raw bacon and eggs they were served for breakfast. The intent of the owner, Davis indicated, was to continue his practice of only serving white customers by discouraging black patrons without explicitly refusing service as he had in the past.
The atmosphere around the restaurant grew more notorious and the proximity of the police station likely prevented violence. However, Davis confirmed that the owner lit surfer cakes and took other actions that put students in danger and sometimes also placed his staff in an uncomfortable position. For more information about the sit-ins and share-ins, as well as the organization of the Civic Interest Progressives, please click on the videos and article by Isaac McKown. McKown's research was conducted as part of Marshall University's Carter G. Woodson Project. Located within Marshall's history department website, the Woodson Project hosts a number of articles about African American history in West Virginia. These articles are based upon research in local archives, newspapers, and interviews with longtime Huntington residents.
Isaac McKown, "Sit-In Demonstrations Challenge Huntington’s Racial Status Quo," Carter G. Woodson Project, Marshall University. http://www.marshall.edu/carterwoodson/isaac_mckown.asp "2 Arrested on Trespass Charges." The Herald Advertiser, August 25, 1963. Bodroghkozy, Aniko. Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement. Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 2012. Lewis, Andrew B. The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation. New York: Macmillan Press, 2009.
Thompson, Bruce A., "An appeal for racial justice : the Civic Interest Progressives' confrontation with Huntington, West Virginia and Marshall University, 1963-1965" (1986). Theses, Dissertations and Capstones. 1233.