Kress Lunch Counter Sit-In 1960
On April 1, 1960, a group of 24 Burke High School students staged a sit-in at the S.H. Kress & Co. lunch counter. It was the first event of its kind in Charleston and was the catalyst that spurred the local African American community into action. The Kress Co. operated in the building until 1980 and it presently houses a Williams-Sonoma store and private offices. The Charleston Preservation Society unveiled a marker commemorating this historical event on April 4, 2013.
Backstory and Context
The Civil Rights Movement Sit-Ins began in Greensboro, NC on February 1, 1960 when four African American students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat down at the Woolworth lunch counter and asked to be served. They were denied, but this action spurred a plethora of similarly segregated lunch counter sit-ins. The majority was staged at either Woolworth’s or Kress’ lunch counters.
Because both the College of Charleston and the Citadel were segregated at the time, students from Burke High School stepped up to the challenge. After two months of planning and preparation by the local NAACP in nonviolent resistance, the students, dressed in their Sunday best, headed to Woolworth’s on April 1, 1960. The date was chosen not only to be two months after the initial Greensboro sit-in, but because there was no school that day.
However, Woolworth’s was prepared for their attempt and the students found no room at the lunch counter. With Kress’ as their back up, they were able to find seats to occupy there. The students politely asked to be served and were denied. Seats were removed to prevent more from joining in the sit-in and ammonia was poured on the counter in an attempt to get them to leave. After 5½ hours of reciting Psalms 23 and the Lord’s Prayer or humming songs, the students were arrested and charged with trespassing. Bail was set at $10 each. The charges were later dropped.
This action became the catalyst for a more invigorating Civil Rights Movement in Charleston. Prior to the sit-in, the African American community was largely quiet for fear of retaliation. But once the students had stepped forward, most of the adults were spurred to support the movement.
The S.H. Kress & Co. built the building at 281 King Street in 1930. As with many of their buildings it is in the Art Deco style.