Lunch counter sit-ins: 60 years later, organizers recall desegregating restaurants

This package of two articles originally was published in the Enid News & Eagle, Enid, Okla., on Aug. 26, 2018, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of lunch counter protests that ended segregation in the city’s restaurants and helped shape later civil rights protests throughout the South.

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Photos of Maudell Lawrence Graves (left) pictured here in 1968, and Bishop Phillip Porter Jr., pictured here as a student at Phillips University, are superimposed on a copy of the Enid Daily Eagle from Aug. 27, 1958, reporting on the lunch counter sit-ins in downtown Enid on that date, which Graves and Porter helped orchestrate, that led to desegregation in the city’s restaurants. (News & Eagle graphic by Bonnie Vculek / Graves photo provided / Porter photo courtesy of Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center)

ENID, Okla., Aug. 27, 2018 — Sixty years ago today, African-American students led a pair of lunch counter protests that ended restaurant segregation in this northern Oklahoma city.

The movement came after several years of smaller protests in Enid, and eight days after Clara Luper organized sit-ins in Oklahoma City.

Luper, an advisor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, taught students how to lead sit-ins in several other cities, including Enid.

Maudell Lawrence Graves, then president of Enid’s chapter of the NAACP, worked with Luper and other civil rights leaders to organize the movement in Enid.

Graves died in 2010, but her sister, the Rev. Bonell Fields, remembers the role Graves played in organizing the Enid civil rights movement.

“Whenever there was a problem in Enid involving integration or prejudice, she would always call the president of the state NAACP,” Fields said, “and they would come over and meet with the mayor and other city officials to try to iron out the problem before it increased in intensity.”

Graves worked with students at Phillips University and Booker T. Washington High School to organize several small marches and sit-ins leading up to 1958.

The protests were nonviolent, but Fields said they still stirred up strong feelings in town. Fields was still a teenager at the time, and said she felt both proud of and afraid for her older sister.

But, fear wasn’t a deterrent to her sister, Fields said, even though Graves was “barely 5 feet tall” and was “slender, soft-spoken, but stubborn.”

“Here was this petite woman going out here and facing all these crowds,” Fields said, “but to look at her you wouldn’t think this is a person who would lead these things.”

Fields said the more racial barriers her sister faced, the more determined she was to overcome them.

“She was determined, and not just in NAACP but in her everyday life,” Fields said. “If there was something she wanted to do, she would work to do that, and if you put an obstacle in her way, it was like, ‘Well, that’s just there for me to show you I can climb over it.'”

When local students decided on a sit-in for Aug. 27, 1958, they set their sights on two downtown lunch counters: Downs Pharmacy at 120 N. Independence and Sanford-Stunkle Drug Co. at 100 N. Independence.

Jess Stunkle, owner of five Sanford-Stunkle locations in Enid, told the Enid Morning News on Aug. 28, 1958, his downtown location had previously served black customers at the lunch counter, “but their number kept growing and several white patrons complained about the presence of the Negroes, so we quit serving them.”

F. W. Woolworth, then at 112 W. Randolph on the city’s courthouse square, had been the site of earlier, smaller sit-ins and had since opened its lunch counter to customers of all races.

Smaller sit-ins in the past had not yielded violent opposition, but also hadn’t yielded results. When it came time to stage the much larger sit-in, following Luper’s model, Fields said her mother was worried for her sister, and for all the youth who would participate.

“I think she worried about any child out there that might be harmed,” Fields said, “because that’s just how Mother was.”

Mid-morning on Aug. 27, 1958, a group of 50-60 black students arrived at the drugstores, filling booths and stools, with others waiting outside to fill seats as white customers left.

That afternoon’s Enid Daily Eagle reported the scene: “More than 50 Enid negroes — ranging from pre-school through college age — were camped on stools and in booths at two downtown Enid lunch counters at mid-day today. And, the spokesman indicated they would stay until they’re served.”

Counter staff at both locations refused to serve the students, but no violence occurred from either side.

“Nearly all of the Negroes were well dressed,” the Eagle reported. “Some of them wore coats and ties. They sat quietly in the booths, and at the counter, reading magazines and books they brought with them.”

As for the white staff, and patrons, the Eagle reported “No one was having anything to say to the negroes at the two lunch counters.”

Bishop Phillip Porter Jr., a Colorado pastor who grew up in Enid and was a student at Phillips at the time, helped organize and participated in the sit-ins. He said he and his fellow protesters were excited that day, but not afraid.

“As I look back I cannot think of a single moment when we had fear grip us,” Porter said. “We didn’t think about going to jail or getting beat by the police or having dogs on us or anything like that. We just thought we would go in there and try to get served.”

Garfield County Sheriff Mason “Bud” Hart and a deputy responded to the Downs lunch counter at about 11 a.m. and spoke with the owner and some of the organizers, but “explained afterward there was nothing he could do,” as “there were no incidents,” the Eagle reported.

By mid-afternoon, the sit-in appeared to be in stalemate. White customers and staff made no effort to remove the black students, and the students undertook no action other than sitting in the seats, waiting to be served and being ignored.

Newspaper reports from that day indicate the lunch counter owners weren’t sure how to address the situation without losing business. With the black students present, they were losing white business. If they integrated before the other restaurants in town, they risked losing even more white business.

Theodus Harris, one of the organizers at the Downs lunch counter, told the Eagle “Downs showed no antagonism toward them, but explained to them that competition among the various downtown lunch counters made it mandatory that he refuse to serve them.”

Crawford Funk, lunch counter operator at Sanford-Stunkle, told the Eagle “several customers approached him on the street, after seeing Negroes eating at the counter, and told him they would patronize his place of business again ‘as soon as you quit letting those Negroes eat in there.'”

To break the stalemate, a committee of 25 Enid restaurant owners promised to discuss integrating their establishments, and sit-in organizers agreed to lead no more protests, pending the restaurant owners’ decision, according to an article in the spring 2018 edition of “The Chronicles of Oklahoma” by Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center archivist Aaron Preston.

Initially the restaurant owners’ meetings were closed to African-Americans. Newspaper reports revealed some of the fears the white business owners had in those first meetings.

Lloyd Hardin, owner of Hardin’s, located south of Enid on U.S. 81, objected to the presence of African-Americans in the restaurants, and blamed newspaper coverage for “increasing both sympathy for, and hostility toward the Negroes.”

Richard Moler, owner of Moler’s Drug Store, was more blunt in his complaints, and where he feared the lunch counter sit-ins might lead.

“This is the beginning of a trend,” Moler is reported as saying in a public meeting of cafe owners. “They will be buying homes in white neighborhoods next. We have to stop it now.”

Despite those fears, the restaurant committee appointed a delegation of five owners to meet with three of the sit-in organizers: Leonard Harrison, Theodus Harris and Hulon Mitchell.

After meeting on Sept. 4, 1958, to avoid further loss of business, the restaurant owners’ group agreed to all integrate their businesses at the same time.

Ray Downs, whose father owned Downs Pharmacy at the time, told the News & Eagle in 2012 the restaurant owners “had a meeting for a couple of days and decided ‘Let’s serve them.’”

Fields said her sister, Maudell Graves, was happy the protests ended with integration of the cafes, and wanted there to be harmony between the restaurant owners and their new customers.

“She was happy about it, and she was glad they had succeeded,” Fields said, “but it wasn’t like, ‘If I win I’m going to rub your nose in it.'”

Sixty years later, Fields said race relations in America are “a lot better than what it was,” but hatred and fear persist. She hopes time will continue to heal the old wounds of segregation and prejudice.

“I think more generations are going to have to fade out, or die out, because I think the younger generation coming up has a different attitude,” Fields said, “and I think the rise of that new generation is going to do a lot to solve that discrimination.”

Graves’ daughter, Rae Graves, said she and her twin brother, Jay, are blessed to know the role their mother played in Enid’s civil rights movement.

“It’s a blessing, it really is,” Rae said. “Knowing what she did is really important and I’ve passed that on. I’m very proud of Mama, and very excited about her history, and I’ve passed that down to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Audrey Finley-Ramey, whose parents, Barbara and Robert Finley, took part in Enid sit-ins, said passage of civil rights lessons from generation to generation is needed to overcome the vestiges of America’s racially divided past.

“Racism would die if it’s not taught,” Finley-Ramey said.

Early protests laid groundwork for 1958 integration of Enid restaurants

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Barbara Finley walks through a garden near the intersection of Washington and Randolph, at the former site of the Don Paul Cafeteria at 227 W. Randolph, where Finley once staged a brief sit-in protest with her late husband, Robert Lee Finley, in the mid-1950s. (Bonnie Vculek / Enid News & Eagle)

While the final sit-in protests of August, 1958 garner most of the attention, they came only after many smaller protests and breakthroughs for African-Americans in Enid, dating back to at least 1954.

Barbara Finley, executive director of the Leona Mitchell Southern Heights Heritage Center and Museum, said black children of the early 1950s “were taught what they needed to survive” in white society.

“We had an environment at home where our parents shared information with us,” Finley said, “and they didn’t hesitate to talk to us about the way things really were.”
“The way things really were,” Finley said, entailed constant reminders that blacks weren’t seen as equals in American society at large.

“You could be walking down the street, and even a little child would look at you and yell, ‘Hey n—–,’” Finley said. “You were constantly confronted with that racism. There were so many things on a daily basis that reminded you of that difference.”

Bishop Phillip Porter Jr., a long-time pastor and bishop in the Church of God in Christ in Colorado, recalled similar memories from his days of growing up in Enid.

African-Americans attended segregated schools, could only enter most restaurants at the back door and had to take their food to go, had separate public facilities and had to sit in upper balconies in local theaters. “It was very blatant, segregated, Jim Crow kinds of things,” Porter said.

Black students at Booker T. Washington High School became acutely aware by the early 1950s that their facilities, books and athletic equipment were inferior to those supplied to white students at Enid High School, Porter said.

In the summer of 1953, Porter said he and several other Booker T. Washington students started an underground newspaper called “What’s the Latest,” typed and mimeographed at the school and hand-delivered, to raise awareness of the discrepancies and civil rights issues in Enid.

“We wanted to do something to make people aware in the community of things that were happening that shouldn’t have happened,” Porter said. “We didn’t try to hide it, we just wanted to get it out in our community.”

Porter continued meeting with other concerned students about civil rights, and by the summer of 1954 some adults in Enid’s African-American community were encouraging them to go further.

“Some of the older African-American members of the community said ‘If you really want to do something why don’t you go down to that drug store and see if you can served,’” Porter said.

“We didn’t need much encouragement,” he said with a laugh, “so we put it together and went down there.”

Porter said he and several other students went to Downs Pharmacy, at 120 N. Independence, mid-morning one day in the summer of 1954 and sat at the lunch counter until afternoon. He said there were no threats or demands that they leave — they were simply ignored by the white counter staff.

“We never got served, but we never got thrown out either,” Porter said with a laugh.
Finley, who was just 12 years old at the time, was forbidden by her mother to attend the sit-in and later protests downtown. She said her two older brothers, then 15 and 18 years old, went to the sit-in with Porter and a later protest at F. W. Woolworth, then at 112 W. Randolph. Her older sister also ran a phone tree to help organize the protests.

Finley said the lunch counter sit-ins remained peaceful, and there was more an air of excitement than fear surrounding the black students’ efforts.

“They were excited,” Finley said. “It felt like something we should be participating in.”
She got her first chance to participate in a sit-in sometime between 1954 and 1958, when she and the late Robert Lee Finley, who she married in 1958, challenged segregation at the Don Paul Cafeteria, which used to sit at 227 W. Randolph.

“We were challenging it,” Finley said. “We just wanted to see if we’d be served.”
They weren’t served, but Finley said there was no violent pushback. They were just ignored.

“We thought that was typical,” Finley said. “We didn’t think it was right. We didn’t feel like it was right for it to occur.”

Protest organizers continued to meet in Finley’s home after she and Robert married, and Finley’s oldest brother, Hulon Mitchell Jr., would go on to be one of the key organizers of the 1958 sit-ins that ended segregation of restaurants and lunch counters in downtown Enid.

After the early protests and sit-ins, Porter continued his contributions to the civil rights movement by helping to integrate Phillips University.

Porter said he was approached by Luther W. Elliott, principal at Booker T. Washington, to enroll at the university at the request of Phillips president Eugene Briggs after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Porter, who was known around Enid for his prowess as a Golden Gloves boxer, said he had to promise Briggs he wouldn’t get in any fights on campus, no matter how he was provoked.

Elliott also made him promise not to fight, Porter said.

“‘Phillips is going to be tough, but you can’t use your fists out here,’” he said Elliott told him. “‘You have to take whatever they throw at you.’”

Porter made the promise and enrolled, and was joined in 1956 by another black student, Lois Mothershed. Mothershed’s sister Thelma went on to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957 as one of the “Little Rock Nine,” according to an article in the spring, 2018 edition of “The Chronicles of Oklahoma” by Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center archivist Aaron Preston.

Porter’s promise not to fight was broken his first day at Phillips, at a picnic for new students.

“They were serving — of all things — watermelon,” Porter said. “And, I like watermelon, so I had a slice in each hand.”

Porter said a white student from Alabama approached him, said “‘I always wanted to put a n—–’s face in a watermelon,’” and shoved his face in the melon.

“I lost it,” Porter said. “I don’t know what happened. Those were the last words I remember until we made it into the president’s office.”

The white student from Alabama, bloodied from his encounter with Porter, was sent home.

Porter renewed his promise to Briggs, and pleaded to stay at the university.

“I couldn’t turn back,” Porter said. “I told him ‘You can count on me. I won’t fight.’”

He made good on that promise, and went on to serve on the student council and debate team at Phillips before graduating in 1959.

After graduation, Porter accepted a job in Colorado and moved there, acceptance letter in hand, only to be turned away when he showed up to his first day on the job. They had hired him sight unseen, and wouldn’t keep him on because of his race.

“They’d hired people from Phillips before,” Porter said with a laugh, “but never anyone of my skin pigmentation.”

He found another job in Denver as a social worker, and later completed degrees in theology from College of the Rockies and University of Denver.

Porter planted a new church in Denver in 1963, All Nations Church of God in Christ, and served as an ordained minister for more than 50 years. His son has since taken over the congregation.

The early days of lunch counter sit-ins and protests in Enid never left Porter. He went on to serve on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission from 1967-70, and worked with University of Colorado Boulder football coach Bill McCartney in founding Promise Keepers, an international Christian men’s ministry.

Porter served as chairman of Promise Keepers from 1994 to 2000, then on staff at the ministry until 2005.

While Porter has served five decades in Colorado, he said his early experiences and roots in Enid remain important to him.

“We loved Enid,” he said, “and to today I’m proud to be from Enid.”

Looking back on the early days of civil rights protests in Enid, Finley said the young people leading the protests were driven by the lessons of their parents.

“We were brought up to speak the truth,” she said, “to tell the truth forever more, and to be involved in the community.”

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