As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I am reminded of a bit of personal history that was, in fact, a little known piece of American History.
It was 1958 when Patti Adams and I arrived on the campus of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Two Negro girls from New York, scoping out the college where Patti anticipated completing her high school senior year in the advanced placement program.
On Saturday afternoon, the day before Easter, we went downtown on a shopping spree. It was time to eat lunch, and knowing that we were in the South, we knew better than to enter a local restaurant. So we chose the safest place we could think of, a national chain, Woolworth’s, and sat down at the counter.
As the waitress appeared not to notice us, Patti, a diminutive young lady, addressed her politely. “We’ll have two hamburgers and two Cokes please.” Tending to her job, the waitress walked back and forth, back and forth, but failed to write down our order.
Well bred, and with a pleasant demeanor, Patti leaned forward and repeated her request. “We’ll have two hamburgers and two Cokes please.” As I sat back, the more timid of the two, my eyes darted first to the left, then to the right, then to the left … as the waitress walked back and forth before us, seemingly oblivious to our request.
Well, at this point, the “New York Bitch” was unleashed as Patti leaned forward, rapped her left hand on the counter, and demanded, “I said we’ll have two hamburgers and two Cokes please.” In the silence that followed, amidst the sideward glances of the other customers, the waitress sauntered over, producing the long awaited two hamburgers and two Cokes. Unconcerned, we ate our lunch and returned to the campus.
Much to our surprise, when we reached our room, we found two plates of food sitting on the desk. “We snuck this out of the cafeteria for you,” a smiling coed told us. “After all, you were downtown, and there’s no place that we can eat in Nashville.” “What do you mean?” we replied. “We had lunch at Woolworth’s”
The blood drained from the coed’s face, and if it were genetically possibly, she would have turned white. “Are you crazy? Negroes can’t eat at the Woolworth counter.”
In 1961, three years later, brave college students from SNCC integrated the Nashville Woolworth counter……for the Second Time.
Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Amy Bryant is the author of You CAN Go Home Again
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