Black Women Pioneered Lunch Counter Sit-Ins in 1943
THE FEBRUARY 1, 1960 SIT-IN conducted by four Black men in a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth store lunch counter was the right protest at the right time. The nascent Civil Rights movement was gaining steam six years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and fed-up Southern Blacks were making themselves seen and heard while flexing their integration muscles. And even though these bold young men were refused service and harassed by angry crew-cutted whites, their action spread to Richmond and other cities throughout the South, sparking a mass movement that not only inspired other Southern Black men and women but Northern whites into racial activism.
But few know that the seeds of the lunch counter sit-in protest were planted 17 years earlier in Washington D.C. by three courageous Black female Howard University students. In 1943 and 1944, they put not just their full-time student status on the line but their lives in jeopardy to protest racial segregation.
Ruth Powell arrived at Howard University in 1941, excited and eager to soak up the Washington D.C. urban scene. She hailed from a suburb of Boston, however, and had no experience with the Jim Crow racism that pervaded the American South. Despite being warned by fellow students to not eat in the downtown D.C. area, she scoffed at their warnings and sat down at a drug store lunch counter to order a sandwich.
When the sandwich never arrived, she questioned the manager, who explained they could not serve Negroes. Ruth blurted “But why?” before hustling back to her dorm, humiliated and outraged.
Soon afterward, America entered World War II, and as Ruth watched 65 of her fellow male Howard law students walk to the recruiting station to enlist, her anger intensified — this was a cruel joke. Why should these men serve their country when they could not even get served at a local lunch counter?
Ruth had an idea, and within days began what she called her solitary “sittings.”
An awakening process
For months it was a lonely and protracted one-woman campaign. Ruth’s M. O. was always the same: she would enter luncheonettes and lunch counters in…