Lenoir Dining Hall
Lenoir Dining Hall is the main dining hall on campus today, functioning as a center for student life. In the 1960s, Lenoir fulfilled the same role, acting as one of the few spaces on campus where students, faculty, and staff interacted. As such a central place on campus, it was also the backdrop for much controversy. During the UNC Foodworkers’ Strike of February 1969, Lenoir Dining Hall workers demanded fair labor practices from their employers. After seeing no changes, the workers organized a strike in Lenoir to strengthen their voice on campus. Protesters marched and picketed outside of the entrance to Lenoir for a month after the strike began, causing the university to call in police to ensure the safety of the peaceful protest. Finally, when tensions boiled over in March, the Black Student Movement reacted violently by overturning tables in Lenoir, leading Governor Bob Scott to call in state troopers to remove the protesters.
Backstory and Context
The UNC Foodworkers’ Strike of 1969 was a collaborative movement between the foodworkers’ and the Black Student Movement on campus to demand fair labor practices. Under the food service director at the time, George Prillaman, workers were denied adequate payment, job descriptions and titles, the ability to move to a full-time position with benefits, and other oppressive employment practices. After attempting to speak with their supervisor, Ottis White, which was often met with the threat of being fired, the foodworkers sent a memorandum in October of 1968 to the “Employers of Lenoir Dining Hall” of 21 possible improvements to the current labor practices. Later that month, Prillaman cited a severe drought, which curtailed dishwashing, as reason to lay off ten employees. With the fear that all who spoke out would simply be laid off, the foodworkers reached out to the Black Student Movement to garner support, organization, and guidance as they began their fight for fair treatment. After months of unsuccessful meetings with administration, the foodworkers planned a peaceful protest. On February 23, 1969, the foodworkers of Lenoir Dining Hall set up their counters as usual, however, when supervisor Mr. White opened the doors to let students in, the foodworkers all sat down at the tables of the dining hall and announced that they were striking.
Lenoir Hall, also known at the time as the Pine Room, was the main dining hall on campus. It was the hub of social interaction between students, faculty, and staff. It was also almost completely staffed by African Americans, mostly women, who lived in fear of losing their jobs if they questioned authority. With such a central location on campus, it served as a meeting place for some of the greatest minds in the school and as a space for innovation. Yet, it was sustained by the unpaid labor of African Americans who felt that they did not have a voice against their unfair treatment.
The Lenoir Dining Hall supervisor, Ottis White, forced the foodworkers to split shifts in order to dock their pay, kept employees who had been working there for over ten years on “temporary employment” status to deny benefits and a pay raise, and consistently charged employees for meals that they did not order, reducing their pay even further. He also refused to assign the foodworkers job titles and job descriptions, calling them by their first names, to maintain a position of power and perpetuate inequity. Employees and prominent leaders of the strike, Elizabeth Brooks and Mary Smith, reached out to the Black Student Movement for support. After several attempts to meet with food services director George Prillaman and supervisor Ottis White without success, the BSM and the foodworkers organized a strike.
On February 23, 1969, the foodworkers set up their stations in Lenoir Dining Hall like usual and when Mr. White began allowing the students in to eat, the ladies came out from behind their counters and sat down at the tables, refusing to serve. This led to a month of marches and protests outside Lenoir, as students and faculty rallied in support of the foodworkers. While the protests were peaceful, campus police were still ordered to surround the entrance to the dining hall, creating tension between protesting and non-protesting students. Such tension ultimately led to the only act of violence during the strike.
After nearly a month of striking, the BSM grew frustrated with the inaction of the administration, especially after hearing rumors that a group of white students was planning to attack the BSM and the foodworkers in Manning Hall. On March 4, 1969, a group of BSM members, including Preston Dobbins and Ashley Davis, marched into Lenoir Dining Hall, chanting and overturning tables. Governor Bob Scott took this act of aggression seriously and ordered state troopers to remove all protesters from the entrance of Lenoir and the Soul Food cafeteria in Manning Hall.
Lenoir Dining Hall has been not only the geographical center of campus, but also the historical center of some UNC’s most notable historical events. By digging deeper into its history, and that of the people who have sustained it for so many generations, we can better understand and define its role in the modern day.