Counter Histories: Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Sit-Ins
Flyleaf Books
Tuesday, April 7, 7 p.m.

Update: This event was rescheduled from February because of weather.

Because of the 1960 Greensboro sit-in that forced Woolworth’s to set aside its policy of racial discrimination in the South, most people know that North Carolina figures prominently in the civil-rights timeline.

Fewer are aware, however, that Durham also played a pivotal role. Three years earlier, a group of eight African-Americans decided to challenge the segregation policy that limited them to buying treats at Royal Ice Cream’s back door while white customers were welcomed to sit inside.

“We weren’t sure what would happen, but we knew it needed to happen,” recalls Virginia Williams, who shares her recollections in one of five documentary shorts that compose Counter Histories, a project of the Southern Foodways Alliance. “We knew it was time to test the establishment.”

Williams will join Kate Medley, Durham photojournalist and producer of Counter Histories, at the Feb. 24 meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC). Jesse Paddock of Carrboro, who directed the Durham feature, also will participate in the event at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

Medley says the focus on youth-led protests at segregated lunch counters was envisioned as a fitting way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act, which President Johnson signed just before Independence Day in 1964. The act made segregation in public places illegal.

The other films document events in Jackson, Mississippi; Rock Hill, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee and Cambridge, Maryland.

Medley produced the piece on Jackson, her hometown, where many still feel the scars of the especially brutal incident. “A lot of the racial tensions still are pretty raw,” she says. “It’s not something people want to talk about.”

Two weeks after the May 1963 sit-in at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter, which commanded national media attention, NAACP field agent Medgar Evers was shot in the head after parking in his own driveway. His assassination galvanized national interest in racial discrimination in the South, leading to adoption of the Civil Rights Act.

“One of the underlying goals of the project was not to just tell a story of yesterday and stop the conversation there,” says Medley, who discussed the film on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in the context of youth leadership, with students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham. The school has a permanent display featuring part of the lunch counter at the old Durham Woolworth’s, where a sit-in occurred one week after the more famous one in Greensboro.

“I asked, ‘Can you imagine being among these people?’ We’re still facing a multitude of civil rights issues, but these young people are empowered to make change,” Medley adds. “We were insistent in our mission that these films are very forward-thinking and relevant to 2014, 2015, tomorrow. We wanted the ideas to be relevant to what’s happening in our world today.”