Civil Rights in Central Virginia: Lynchburg residents took a stand by sitting down

At age 18, Miriam Gaines, of Lynchburg, took part in the city’s second lunch counter sit-in during the Civil Rights movement. ‘The movement was going on all over the country, not just Lynchburg,’ Gaines said. ‘I’m just glad I got to live long enough to see progress made.’

SECOND IN A SERIES: Civil Rights in Central Virginia: With Barack Obama poised to become the nation’s first black President, The News & Advance looks at significant post-1950s civil rights moments in Lynchburg.

The hour was late on Dec. 15, 1960, when 18-year-old Miriam Gaines walked into a downtown drug store and dared to do something she’d never done before — sit down.

Gaines, a black student from Campbell County High School, claimed a stool at the whites-only lunch counter of People’s Drug Store, perching alongside four white students from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

Just one day earlier, six other Lynchburg students had been arrested for staging a similar demonstration at Patterson’s Drug Store, another segregated Main Street establishment.

The specter of those arrests hung over this second assembly, adding a nerve-rattling tension to the air as the leaders of the group politely ordered a round of sodas.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” recalled Gaines, who was described in the newspaper the next day as the “Negro girl companion” of the other students.

“But I knew how degrading it felt not to be able to sit down and eat or use the restroom at places. We knew something had to happen. There had to be a change. I think that overcame any fear we had.”

Gaines, a slim young girl wearing cat-eye glasses, kept quiet while the others placed their orders.

When the drinks arrived, though, another girl silently slid a glass over to her. That, participants recall, was the straw that broke People’s back.

“That’s when the manager said, ‘The End. Goodbye,’” said Alice Ball, who in those days was Alice Hilseweck, a senior at Randolph-Macon. “They showed us to the door.”

The drugstore promptly closed for the evening and asked the girls to leave. A newspaper account of the event, carrying the headline “Racially-Mixed Group is Served,” said store employees turned out several lights while the girls sat at the counter finish-ing their drinks.

They left without incident or police intervention.

December 1960 marked the beginning of a wave of these lunch counter sit-ins for Lynchburg, a time also defined by boycotts, picket lines and segregation lawsuits.

The audacity of those who took part in the civil rights campaign was deemed shocking and improper by many, with condemnations pouring down from multiple quarters — including the city’s morning and evening newspapers, The News and The Daily Advance.

The public censure was difficult for many of the students involved to face. None, though, regretted their actions, according to recent interviews.

“We were willing to do that as a way of opposing what we considered an unjust law,” said Ralph Reavis, who was sentenced to 60 days in jail for engaging in a sit-in during his student days at Virginia Theological Seminary and College — now the Virginia University of Lynchburg.

Reavis, now president of the historically black VUL, recalls drawing inspiration from Thoreau’s works on civil disobedience and the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi.

“And, of course, we were studying Jesus on campus,” he said. “That’s where our philosophy came from; not cooperating with evil.”

Lynchburg’s first sit-in was convened at Patterson’s Drug Store — now defunct — after owners refused an invitation to meet with students to discuss the store’s segregation policy. The “Patterson Six,” as the protesters came to be known, consisted of two students each from Randolph-Macon, Virginia Seminary and Lynchburg College.

Included in the group was Gaines’ older sister, Barbara Thomas, a Virginia Seminary student and strong influence on her younger sibling.

“She was going to these meetings and asked if I wanted to come,” said Gaines, a 66-year-old Ericsson retiree now residing in Forest. “Of course, I wanted to go because she was going and I wanted to be with her. She was two years older, really three years older, and I always looked up to her.”

“It seems like it happened so long ago. Like another life,” Gaines added. “I don’t think Lynchburg was the same for (Barbara) after that. She visited, but she never felt the same.”

Barbara Thomas would eventually move to California, where she started a business offering support services for Hispanic immigrants. She died in 2004.

In Lynchburg, the People’s sit-in was organized the next day as a deliberate follow-up to the Patterson event. Gaines barely knew the other girls she would share a soda with that night. Ball recalls the whole affair was planned in a hurry — Christmas break was looming near, threatening to scatter the students to their respective hometowns.

“The idea was the other six were not the only people in town who thought like that,” said Ball, now 69 and living in Atlanta. “And it was an attempt to make sure it wasn’t just one place demonized. … We wanted to make sure Patterson’s didn’t become the focus. To make sure the focus was on the injustice of the trespass law.”

Virginia’s trespassing law was altered to allow for stiffer penalties in 1960, just as the sit-in movement began.

The Patterson Six would later be convicted under that law and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Attempts by their attorney to address the issue of race and segregation in court were quashed by the judge as irrelevant.

Reavis, one of seven sit-in participants arrested Feb. 13, 1961, would go on to join a jailhouse hunger strike organized after authorities refused to let the student inmates have their textbooks.

“That made the jailers very uncomfortable,” he recalled today with a chuckle.

Reavis, 68, remembers that era as a time of great passion and “great expectation.”

“You don’t get a lot of chances to stand up in life,” he reflected. “In many ways, I think it was the best time of my life.”

“Some people felt like we should wait, but some things can’t wait. We had an urgency in us. We were young.”

None of those interviewed considered their actions brave at the time. Rather, they said, it was something that had to be done.

“There are far more people that did greater things and riskier things to get freedom for everybody,” Gaines said. “It was a very small part we played, but a part that needed to be played.”

Today, Gaines said she remains concerned about social issues but maintains a quieter presence, her days of public activism left far behind her. At least for now.

“I don’t regret it, my participation,” she said. “I’m not going to say I’m not going to do it again. Because I don’t know where God’s going to take me.”

Tuesday: One day in 1977, Garland-Rodes Elementary School principal Vivian Camm made local civil rights history.

Coming Thursday: When C.W. Seay, Lynchburg's first black council member, wasn't named mayor by the other council members in 1974, despite being the leading vote-getter, he stunned the city by resigning -- briefly.

Coming in The News & Advance:

INAUGURATING THE PRESIDENT

Monday, Jan. 19: Commemorative Barack Obama Inauguration Section

Tuesday, Jan. 20: Live coverage online, plus a look at where you can watch the inauguration in the area

Wednesday, Jan. 21: Special Barack Obama Inauguration Edition

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