If you know any of the history of Fredericksburg, Virginia, it’s likely related to the Civil War or George Washington. Unless you’re of a certain generation or are from the area, you probably don’t know much, if anything, about Fredericksburg’s Civil Rights history. Peel back the layers of this beautiful city’s past to discover something still relevant today: the quest for equality.
It was the summer of 1960.
Five years earlier, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama (one of a long line of women who had stood their ground). Three years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Encouraged by the peaceful sit-ins by North Carolina A&T students at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, Fredericksburg high school students took to the drug store counters on the corners of Caroline and William Streets: People’s, W.T. Grant’s, and F.W. Woolworth’s.
Like their peers in Greensboro, the Fredericksburg students sat peacefully at the lunch counters, waiting to affect policies. Change came to Greensboro on July 25 when Woolworth’s desegregated their lunch counter. Fredericksburg’s students saw the fruits of their quiet labor on July 30.
Gaye Adegbalola (then 16-year-old Gaye Todd) was among the protestors. She wrote, “By the end of the summer, all stores except for People’s desegregated their lunch counters. We’d really hit them in their pocketbooks. Even the theaters, where we had to sit in the balcony and eat the stale popcorn, agreed to desegregate.”
Adegbalola’s mother, Gladys Poles Todd, was a key organizer of the sit-in movement in Fredericksburg, as was Dr. Philip Wyatt, Sr., a dentist and president of the Fredericksburg chapter of the NAACP. Todd, Wyatt and other members of their church, Shiloh Baptist (Old Site), prepped and trained the 20 students participating in the sit-ins, teaching passive protesting rather than aggression. Dr. Wyatt led a group of seven African-Americans to test the desegregation waters on the afternoon of July 30. He and his group were served at the counters of Grant’s and Woolworth’s without incident.
Grant’s, People’s, and Woolworth’s are long gone from the corners of Caroline and William Streets, but a ride on the Trolley Tours of Fredericksburg highlights the storefronts that witnessed history. Also on the tour is Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), which was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in March 2015.
As for the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, it is quite fitting to note that it is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
Additional Point of Interest:
Hennessy, John. Sit-in Corner: July 1960.
Browne, Allen C. Antiques, Civil Rights, Civil War, and Religious Freedom.
Adegbalola, Gaye. Article #22.
A History of the Fredericksburg Congregation that Became Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site). ShilohOldSite.org.
Feature Image: Seeking Civil Rights Marker by Dawn Bowen.