‘A generational fight’ — Protest organizer recalls desegregating Enid restaurants

This post originally ran as an article in the Sept. 4, 2018 edition of the Enid News & Eagle. It is the third article in a three-part series on sit-in protests and restaurant desegregation in Enid, Oklahoma.

Harrison

A recent photo of Leonard Harrison, of Baltimore, Md., left, and a photo from a 1970 cover of the Topeka Capital Journal Midway magazine, right, appear above Enid Daily Eagle and Enid Morning News articles from late August, 1958, when Harrison, then a student at Phillips University, coordinated negotiations with Enid’s white restaurant owners to desegregate the city’s eateries after a one-day sit-in at two downtown lunch counters on Aug. 27, 1958. The restaurant owners agreed to desegregate nine days later, on Sept. 4, 1958. (Photos provided / News & Eagle photo illustration by James Neal and Billy Hefton)

ENID, Okla. — On Sept. 4, 1958, 60 years ago today, Enid restaurant owners concluded a meeting with three African-American civil rights protesters and decided to desegregate their restaurants — a decision that would have been unthinkable a year or two earlier, but was still years ahead of the civil rights movement in other Southern cities.

The move came after sit-in protests led by Clara Luper in Oklahoma City two weeks earlier, several years of smaller protests in Enid and a sit-in of more than 50 black students at two downtown Enid lunch counters on Aug. 27, 1958. But, while sit-ins would continue sporadically for four more years in Oklahoma City, and the beginning of sit-ins in the Deep South was still two years away in Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins in Enid concluded after one day and led to peaceful desegregation of the city’s restaurants nine days later.

Leonard Harrison, now of Baltimore, Md., was a student at Phillips University in 1958 and was one of three protest organizers who negotiated an end to restaurant segregation in Enid after the Aug. 27, 1958, sit-ins.

Those sit-ins ended in a stalemate, with organizers promising to forego any more protests until restaurant owners came back with a proposal to address the question of segregation in Enid eateries. A committee of 25 restaurant owners had formed by late afternoon to consider the matter.

Harrison told the News & Eagle in an Aug. 30 interview the restaurant owners were hesitant to open their establishments to African-American business in part because they didn’t want to alienate white patrons.

F. W. Woolworth, then at 112 W. Randolph, had integrated its lunch counter about a year earlier, but most white-owned restaurants still barred black patrons, or required them to take their food to go from the back door, Harrison said.

“It just hadn’t happened before,” Harrison said, “and people weren’t willing to yield because they didn’t want to create problems with their other clientele.”

But, concerns over losing white business was just “the ultimate excuse” to not integrate, Harrison said. Beneath that, he said, racism remained the root cause of segregation.

“White people didn’t want to be with black people,” he said. “They just didn’t want to serve black people. If you want to know the truth, it was as simple as that. They were OK with black people cutting their grass, but as far as eating with them — they didn’t want to do that.”

The Enid sit-ins in August 1958 weren’t Harrison’s first experience with civil rights protests. He had marched with John White, who would go on to be elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1965, and participated in Luper’s sit-ins in Oklahoma City.

He would continue on in the civil rights movement after the Enid sit-ins, including marching in several cities with Martin Luther King Jr. and time with Malcolm X. What made Enid unique from those earlier and later protests, Harrison said, was Enid’s size and that the schools already had started integrating in 1955, chipping away at racial barriers in the community for three years before the last sit-ins.

“By the time we started marching in 1958, there was a whole different climate,” Harrison said.

Harrison was part of the early integration effort, completing 11th and 12th grades at Enid High School before his graduation in 1957. He said that early experience of moving black students into Emerson and Longfellow junior highs, and then Enid High, had mentally prepared many in the community — both black and white — for the prospect of broader desegregation.

“Enid had sort of come to accept the inevitability that this was coming,” Harrison said. “We went to Enid High School, and it didn’t collapse. We went to Phillips, and it didn’t collapse. So, why would the businesses collapse?”

That resignation to, if not acceptance of, integration may have tempered the restaurant owners’ and white patrons’ response to the sit-ins, Harrison said.

“The reactions to our efforts were non-aggressive,” Harrison said. “The restaurant owners were not aggressive to us, and neither were the police. It didn’t create as much friction with them as we anticipated.”

When it came time to negotiate with the restaurant owners’ committee after the Aug. 27, 1958, sit-ins, Harrison said he had the advantage of already knowing most of the owners due to attending the previously all-white Enid High.

“In most cases, I had been around their children, had been in school with them or played ball with them, so it wasn’t like I was unknown to them,” Harrison said.

However, that didn’t mean the restaurant owners were open at first to direct negotiations with Harrison and his peers. On Aug. 29, 1958, two days after the sit-ins, Harrison and three other protest organizers attempted to attend a meeting of eight restaurant owners at the Youngblood Hotel, 302 N. Independence.

“Three of them sat down in the back of the room, and Leonard Harrison, the spokesman for the group took a seat up front,” the Enid Daily Eagle reported that afternoon. “One of the restaurant operators turned to the Negroes and explained that it was a closed meeting. ‘You’ve had your meetings, and didn’t invite us. Now we’re having a meeting and you’re not invited.’”

When Harrison and his peers refused to leave the owners moved their meeting, the Eagle reported, and later continued conversations with an attorney about ways they might legally exclude African-Americans from their restaurants. But, an impromptu meeting in the hallway between several owners and Theodus Harris, one of Harrison’s co-organizers, paved the way for later, more productive encounters between the two groups.

“After a brief huddle in the hallway, Harris said they had a discussion with the restaurant operators,” the Eagle reported, “and were told a committee would be formed to work with them on a plan that would be acceptable to everyone.”

Over the next week, more than a half dozen meetings were held between a select committee of five restaurant owners and three protest organizers, led by Harrison. Initially, little headway was made.

“It was not hostile,” Harrison said, “but we were in an impasse and never got anywhere.”

Progress began to be made, he said, when the negotiations spread beyond the restaurant owners and protestors to include churches, civic groups and the NAACP.

“All of the community became involved,” Harrison said. “Black folks, white folks — everyone got involved in this serious discussion because we had ignited this fire and everyone needed to be involved in deciding how to go forward.”

Harrison said there wasn’t a single incident in the meetings that tipped the scale toward desegregation. Racism still persisted, he said, but fear had been broken down by a long series of developments, including previous protests, school integration and community involvement in the negotiations.

“They no longer feared us, and we didn’t fear them,” Harrison said. “That was really the turning of the clock.”

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.

Once the white-owned restaurants opened their doors to African-American business, Harrison said members of the black community did not hesitate to patronize the previously forbidden businesses.

“There was no hesitation at all,” Harrison said. “We were wired up. People started patronizing all of those restaurants.”

Harrison left Enid in 1958 to attend Central State University, but his involvement in the civil rights movement continued. After working in the movement under King and Malcolm X through the 1960s, Harrison moved to Africa in 1971 and worked for 27 years on community development in recently-liberated nations such as Tanzania and Zambia and taught social history at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

Looking back on his years of civil rights activism, both in the United States and abroad, Harrison offered some simple but challenging advice for Americans of today: “Just keep protesting.”

“We have to keep protesting, because every generation has to defend its own freedom,” he said. “Because, every time generations change, people come to take freedom away.”

Harrison said protecting freedom today isn’t just a race issue, but has grown to include concerns over class, income disparity and treatment of Hispanic immigrants.

“It’s a generational fight,” he said. “Every generation has to defend its freedom. Every generation they come to take freedom, and we have to stand up and say ‘No.’

“Wherever we see freedom threatened, we must fight tenaciously, courageously and persistently,” Harrison said. “We sometimes go to sleep and think this thing is done. It’s not done. It’ll probably never be done.”

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