Isaac Baker in front of the former F.W. Woolworth store on West Washington Street, where sit-in protests took place during the 1960s. (Tracy Agnew/Suffolk News-Herald)
Isaac Baker in front of the former F.W. Woolworth store on West Washington Street, where sit-in protests took place during the 1960s. (Tracy Agnew/Suffolk News-Herald)

Archived Story

Protestors recall sit-ins in Suffolk

Published 11:46pm Saturday, February 22, 2014

‘How times have changed’

Black History Month is an appropriate time to remember the moments when people fought to obtain the freedoms everyone enjoys now.

Isaac Baker, who grew up in Suffolk, remembers when Suffolk was segregated in almost every aspect of life.

On the east side of the railroad tracks that cross East Washington Street at Hall Avenue, black customers could walk in the front door of businesses and be served because, in fact, many of those businesses were owned by blacks themselves.

Baker calls it “Black Wall Street.”

“We had our own funeral home, furniture store, doctors, dentists, banks, theater,” Baker said recently standing near the tracks.

On the other side of the tracks, most of the businesses were duplicated. They were the ones owned by whites, and most of them did not allow black customers in the front door, if at all.

Baker recalls the old Crystal Restaurant at 116 W. Washington St. The building still has a cross on the front, which strikes Baker as a contradiction.

“They didn’t allow blacks in the front door, and they didn’t serve blacks in the front,” he said.

Black customers had to go around back and get their food from the back door near the garbage cans, Baker said.

Baker was among many protestors led by J. Rayfield Vines Jr., who was arrested in February 1960 on a pile of charges, including parading without a permit, unlawful group gathering, leading a mob, inciting a riot, holding a public meeting on city property without permission from the city manager and “integrating a segregated establishment.”

The protestors led sit-ins at F.W. Woolworth and other local businesses that wouldn’t serve blacks. Some whites joined in.

Woolworth became the first to capitulate when — although a small victory — the store removed all the chairs from its lunch counter and served everyone standing up. Diners may have been uncomfortable, but at least they were equal.

“They wouldn’t serve us, but we sat there until we finally broke the ice, and they served us,” Baker said. “My, how times have changed.”

That same year, Ron Hart graduated from Suffolk’s Booker T. Washington High School and went off to North Carolina A&T University, which was on the precipice of sparking great social change.

Some of the first college sit-ins took place in Greensboro and were led by A&T students. The famous Greensboro Four — Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond — on Feb. 1, 1960, started a snowball of protests that involved more than 1,000 students — black and white, men and women — by the end of that week, according to

The next week, media coverage had spread the movement to lunch counters in the rest of the state, with other Southern states following by the end of the month. By the end of July, the two Greensboro lunch counters targeted by the students — at F.W. Woolworth and Kress — were desegregated. The protests sparked swim-ins at segregated pools, read-ins at segregated libraries and more.

Hart was among many who went to jail over the sit-ins after he protested at cafeterias and movie theaters. He stayed behind bars for three or four days.

“They jailed so many of us they had to postpone classes at A&T for a while,” said Hart, now director of the Metropolitan Church Federal Credit Union.

Eventually, Hart saw the desegregation of society.

“It feels good to know you were a part of it and you had some role in bringing togetherness,” he said. “And it wasn’t just an all-black demonstration. It was a mixture of blacks and whites coming together to try to get businesses to do what was right.”

  • Dennis Edwards

    Woolworth’s first location in Suffolk was in the building on West Washington Street where Isaac is standing in the picture. Woolworth’s later moved to a new building on Main St. next to the old J.C. Penney Store. That’s when Roses moved into the old Woolwoths building on West Washington. So there is no doubt that the picture of Isaac is absolutely accurate.

    Suggest Removal

  • nebo

    I don’t recall F. W. Woolworth being on W. Washington Street either. I recall it being on N. Main Street.

    Suggest Removal

  • 61yankeefan

    I was also around in the 60′s. Unless it relocated before I can remember, I seem to recall Woolworth’s being on N. Main st, adjacent to what is now the courts building. This fellow appears to be standing in front of what was Rose’s, R.R. Allen’s and McClellan’s. Most folks usually accurately remember the location of traumatic events in their lives. But maybe not.

    Suggest Removal

  • So What

    HERE IS A LINK THAT jUST shows how much more this true American Patriot was treated by a person of lesser Character and integrity put him through
    .His welcome home parade was a uniting of this community it like him has been for gotten because due to what it represented is archaic AND groups like the NAACP are more than willing and able to keep the black man subserverant to the system yet claim over and over its the white guys fault.

    Suggest Removal

    • RobertEStephens

      Thank you for sharing the comments about COL Fred Cherry. FYI, COL Cherry is currently in fair health, residing in Silver Spring, MD. He has also established the COL Fred V. Cherry Scholarship Fund with the Suffolk Foundation to help deserving students. As you probably know, there have been several books written about his heroic deed and experience, but the most powerful is: “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship that saved Two POWs lives in Vietnam”. ( And…since has never been a film produced [exclusively] about him, there are currently efforts (script in edit) to tell his story in an educational documentary. Again, thank you for sharing!

      Suggest Removal

  • So What

    I Was just a young lad during those times> perhaps I am not making a full connect with the article, and its historical value, and content but I do Know that I am older now and a connection between black pride and civil rights, being a person of color and not having them both didn’t give that person feeling of equality. back then.
    One event that stands out in my mind and with great pride, something never mentioned by the black leaders nor even the white leaders of the community as divided as it is north via of white flight and the south via of the blacks who stayed and was encouraged by past present and will be future adminstrations to continue on its path to a Detroit or Chicago way of doing things, never mention Col Fred Cherry Suffolk native and hero. For those who don’t know the story or the history of this man, Google his name, there are those out there who would not want you to know of this man, his accomplishments and sacrifices he made. I know of no other Suffolkian than he who made me feel proud to be a Suffolkian when it came to being civic minded, without a flair for drama or to have a D or R, white or black in my description of my self. THE DEMOCRATS aka libs, jesses Als and Jermiah’s the race baiters and Our first so called black president Has robbed and stolen the true identity of a whole generation if not generations of a whole and once proud black people.

    Most people tend to confuse race or skin color with culture. If I am proud to be white, if anything I am proud of my culture rather than the color of my skin. A culture based on hard work, honesty, integrity, and shared values, among other things.

    If god called me up to heaven and informed me that he was in the process of making a new planet and that he wanted me to decide with whom he should populate it, and my two choices were white liberals or black conservatives, I would choose the latter. Put me in a room with DR. Ben Carson, Allen West and 50 other black men or women with similar values and I would be as comfortable as anywhere, regardless of my being the only white guy in the room. Put me in a room with Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, MichaelMoore, Harry Reid Jesse Jackson, Al Sharptounge, Shelia Jackson Lee. Jermiah Wright, Barrack OBama, or is it Barry Obama or Barry Sorretto, I would just have to slap all of them upside the head just to protect my Mental Health.

    Suggest Removal

Editor's Picks