By Dr. Eurydice Stanley, Pensacola NAACP Youth Council Advisor
The current Pensacola NAACP Youth Council had the distinct honor last weekend to serve local Civil Rights Icons, members of the 1960-1962 Youth Council, who participated in Sit-Ins to desegregate Pensacola. A Historic Marker permanently displayed outside the former Woolworth’s downtown was dedicated to them, providing long overdue recognition and thanks for their selfless service.
Unfortunately, many do not realize that long ago, in a world very much removed from today, African Americans were not allowed to sit at local lunch counters to eat their meals. Over the past 50 years, the sacrifices of the original members of the Sit-Ins, have been forgotten, taken for granted or essentially overlooked. These brave youth, some as young as 12, quietly endured numerous atrocities in protest to segregation. For 707 days, one of the longest Sit-Ins in the country, they sat at Pensacola lunch counters demanding equality for all.
Dr. Sarah Jones unearthed their story as she conducted research for her doctorate. After she earned her degree, she used her research as the foundation to apply for a historic marker in honor of these unsung heroes and sheroes. Once made aware of the former Youth Council’s sacrifice, the current Pensacola NAACP Youth Council eagerly sought opportunities to honor and learn more about them.
Weeks prior to the Historic Marker Dedication weekend, the current Youth Council was visited by local Sit-In participants, to include Ms. Della Redmond, who was 19 when she protested. When she shared that someone spat in her face during the Sit-Ins, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. “I don’t know what I would have done if that happened to me,” noted Malik Blankenship, age 14.
Each current member of the Youth Council received training on conducting interviews and personally contacted an adult counterpart from the 60’s Youth Council, very excited to have the opportunity to speak with “living history.” As Ceirra Moore, age 9, interviewed Cheryle Allen, who was 14 when she Sat-In, Allen noted, “I am glad you called. No one has ever asked us anything about what happened.” That statement encouraged the youth to uncover more truths during their interviews!
Last Friday, the Youth Council provided entertainment to the 60’s Youth Council at the Fricker Center, the location where they hung out as teens. Although the honorees all participated in the Sit-Ins, many did not know one another due to the fact that they participated at different times over the almost two-year protest. To introduce them to one another, current Youth Council played, “Who Am I,” presenting clues about the honorees gathered during their interviews such as nicknames and activities during high school. “It is truly an honor to stand before you today,” noted DeShaun Brundridge before he introduced his interviewee. The youth truly gained a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made by the 60’s Youth Council by speaking with them individually and serving them collectively. Later, guests played “Sit-In Bingo,” where they had to collect signatures under different clues such as employment, where they live and number of grandchildren. All winners received prizes.
As the honorees noticed nearly 100 colorful mugs in the back of the room, Christian Stanley said, “The back counter our version of Woolworth’s, called ‘I Know My Worth.’ At our counter, you can have whatever you like!” The Youth Council served guests Root beer floats and handed out replicas of Woolworth’s menus from the 60’s, which were later used as keepsakes to collect autographs from the honorees.
The most moving part of the evening took place as the two Youth Councils gathered for group pictures. Erven Williams, 14 when he participated in the Sit-Ins, started singing, “We Shall Overcome.” Immediately, everyone in the room, to include family members, guests and members of the NAACP Executive Committee eagerly joined in, singing with great fervor. “I hope no one minded,” he said, “it just seemed right at the time.”
As the evening ended, the 60’s Youth Council left notes of encouragement for today’s youth. A few of the comments read:
– “You are flying now, I see you soaring in the future…stay focused!”
– “You make me feel proud when you speak out loud & clear.”
– “Please stay active in activities that inspire your learning.”
– “Keep God with you whenever you go. He’s the Master, I know!
– “Continue the legacy and your service to the community. Continue as scholars and outstanding citizens. Thank you for an excellent evening of activities!”
Finally, the long-awaited day arrived on Saturday, as the 60’s Youth Council wore t-shirts that said, “I was __ (years old), when I Sat-In,” and the current Youth Council wore shirts that said #IMATTER. The ages allowed the youth to take pictures with honorees that were their current age during the Sit-Ins, making their actions “very real.” As the program began, today’s youth led a processional for their elders, ultimately creating a walkway of honor that the honorees passed through as they were directed to their front-row seats. Unfortunately, torrential rain cut the official ceremony short, and strong gusts of wind actually and unveiled the marker. Initially, the rain was a disappointment, but not after the daughter of Rev. Dobbins, the chief orchestrator of the Sit-Ins, said, “That was my Daddy…he was here to unveil the marker!”
Finally, the current Youth Council provided Certificates of Appreciation after the Historic Marker dedication. Each certificate featured an original poem written collaboratively by the youth titled, “How Do We Thank You?”, and artwork from local artist Carter J featuring teens sitting at a Woolworth’s counter drawn in black-and-white with a child drawn in color (representing today’s youth) giving them a hug. “We can’t thank you enough,” said Saafir Harden as he presented a certificate in gratitude for her husband’s dedication and their family’s sacrifice to Mrs. Dobbins, widow of Rev. Dobbins.
The weekend ended with the Youth Councils worshipping together at Bethel AME and enjoying a final meal prior to the departure of the majority of the group. Grace Stanley, current Pensacola NAACP Youth Council President said, “This has been an awesome weekend! The best way to learn history is to meet it for yourself!”