Sit-Ins at the Diamond Department Store, 1958-1960
The Diamond Department Store was established in 1927, and was a state of the art five floor retailer in Charleston, WV. The store was successful even through the Great Depression and expanded enough in the late 1940s to have the first escalators in the state installed. However, the Diamond Department store was only elaborate for the white population of Charleston, as they banned the African American community from the store’s lunch counter and cafeteria. Local activist, Elizabeth Harden Gilmore, and the Congress of Racial Equality staged sit-ins for a year and a half to fight for their right to be treated equally. In 1930, the Diamond Department Store opened their lunch counter and cafeterias to everyone no matter the color of their skin, thanks to the efforts of Gilmore and CORE.
Backstory and Context
On August 11, 1958, a committee of white and black representatives of the Charleston chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) approached the management of the Diamond Department Store. The members recognized that the manager of the store, a native of Missouri and long-time resident of Alabama, might be unfamiliar with the fact that many of the restaurants and stores in Charleston served white and black customers and none of these establishments had lost business for doing so. The manager promised to take the matter to the board and contact CORE with his response. After he failed to respond, members of CORE again met with the manager who reported that the board voted unanimously against CORE's request to end its ban on serving black customers at the Diamond's lunch counter. At the time, the store also denied black customers the opportunity to try on merchandise before they purchased it. The manager defended both of these policies by claiming any modification would offend white customers. In response, the churches and other institutions in Charleston's black community called on members to boycott the Diamond.
Elizabeth Harden Gilmore led a 22-month campaign to end racial discrimination at the Diamond Department Store. Gilmore and other black leaders in Charleston established a local chapter of the CORE for the express purpose of challenging segregation at the leading department stores of Charleston. Some of the leading department stores agreed to integrate after meeting with members of CORE, largely due to the recognition that maintaining their policy of racial discrimination might lead to boycotts and protests that would hurt business. Within a few months, Kresge, Woolworth, and the Newberry department stores opened their lunch counters to customers of all races. The Capitol Theater also decided to integrate its facilities. However, the Stone&Thomas Department Store and the Diamond Department Store continued to draw the color line. African American patrons could purchase clothing but they could not try those items on and they could not return them after they had touched their skin. Although they could purchase meals to-go, the Diamond's lunch counter refused to seat African Americans.
After months of protests by members of CORE that brought older community members together with students at West Virginia State College, management decided to open the Diamond's lunch counter to all races on May 3, 1960. Blanche Wade recalled how the protests hurt the Diamond economically. She and other protesters would purchase items and then attempt to be seated at the Diamond's lunch counter. After being refused service, she and others would politely return the items. When this strategy failed to bring integration, she and others escalated their protest from returning items to effectively shutting down the lunch counter by holding sit-ins.