A friendship prompted more than four decades of work on sit-in commemorations

by Jordan Green

Hal Sieber was living in Chapel Hill when four NC A&T College students, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Joseph Thompson, sat down at the lunch counter in the Woolworth’s department store in downtown Greensboro and insisted on being served. The year was 1960.

Although the sit-in had already been successfully used as a tactic by student activists in Wichita, Kans., news of the Woolworth’s sit-in spread like wildfire through the grapevine of black church and movement circles, creating a wave of similar actions. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which would supply the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, had its founding conference at Shaw University in Raleigh a mere two-and-a-half weeks later.

When Sieber met Richmond at a community meeting in the White Street area after moving to Greensboro in 1966 to direct the chamber of commerce’s public relations efforts, he said he must have known about his role in the initiating the sit-ins.

“David Richmond was a close personal, family and program friend,” Sieber recalled in a recent interview. “I met the mother of his love child and the child herself, which lent an intimacy to our family relationship. There were no community celebrations for several years, mainly because nobody wanted to remind himself or herself of the great African- American-related achievements and potential for achievement.”

Sieber spoke slowly and deliberately, composing a narrative from his recollections that referenced his own role in events in third person and dictating it for the historical record.

In the mid-1960s, Greensboro’s role as a seedbed of student activism was not one the city fathers wished to publicize, but that would change over the years as elected leadership sought to deflect attention from the sad grievous incident of five communist labor activists shot dead by members of a Klan and Nazi coalition in the streets before television and news cameras, and later as the realization dawned that honoring the sit-ins could enhance tourism and economic development. But in the 1960s, Richmond’s role in the sit-ins was considered more a personal liability than an asset.

“For the same reason the manager of Woolworth’s wanted to keep the attention from being focused on his company lest it would bring focus on the company’s failure to desegregate over the years and unwillingness to completely and totally integrate at the present time,” Sieber said. “So, also, the liberals, including the men and women of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, feared losing their financial and political support. So they kept their ‘secret support’ and potential for ‘secret support’ on the hushhush.”

The two men became so close that Richmond’s parents would invite Sieber over for fried chicken dinners, and Sieber’s wife at the time, Margie, would fix Richmond prime rib and apple pie. Sieber also drew Richmond into his chamber of commerce activities.

“Since A&T wanted to continue avoiding sit-in celebrations and other observances, Dave and I concocted little private observances, which eventually became the chamber of commerce discussion cell program and, later, in the early 1970s, the beginnings of a chamber-sponsored, city of Greensboro-sponsored, NAACPsponsored and committee of clergysponsored grand event,” Sieber said.

Among the four students who initiated the sit-ins, Richmond was the only one who stayed in Greensboro. Sieber said George Simkins, president of the Greensboro NAACP, was an exception rather than the rule in consistently extending personal support to Richmond.

“He lived here; this was his home,” Sieber said. “He was also trying, although unsuccessfully, to begin a career here. David Richmond, to his dying day, was never able to get a career-related, full-time, paying job.

He was considered a troublemaker by almost everyone except Sieber and his other close confidante and ‘secret coworker,’ George Simkins.”

One pivot point was Nov. 3, 1979, as the city approached the 20 th anniversary of the Woolworth’s sit-ins.

“In 1979, the Morningside Massacre by the Ku Klux Klan took place,” Sieber said. “Within hours, everyone wanted to turn the public’s eyes from this event, which was so destructive of the favorable public image of Greensboro. As Captain Daughtry of the Greensboro Police Department and the International Chiefs of the Police put it years later, the police, city and others wanted to no focus on the dangerous and vicious Ku Klux Klan.”

Sieber played a key role in organizing the sit-in commemoration, as survivors of the shootings sought to draw national and international attention to the Klan and Nazi violence and to highlight the police department’s failure to effectively intervene.

“Within minutes after the public became aware of the Klan attack at Lincoln Grove, a young ‘oral history’ librarian named Eugene Pfaff called Shirley Frye, wife of the future North Carolina chief justice, to ask her to organize a sit-in observance to deflect too much free publicity for the Klan and its communist antagonists,” Sieber said. “Shirley Frye called Hal Sieber to serve as a low-key organizer for a sit-in anniversary gala on Feb. 1, the traditional observance date. Sieber secured the help of his beautiful, young wife, Shirley Barnes- Sieber. By the time that Sam Proctor, administrative chief of

A&T at the time of the sit-ins, spoke at the luncheon on Feb. 1. Almost everyone except the blatant integrationists basked in the sunlight of international notoriety.”

Sieber held only one significant reservation about the event: It was held at a hotel on the west side of Greensboro to ensure that prominent whites would feel comfortable. The accomplishments of desegregation had only reached so far.

As for emphasizing celebration over regret, Sieber is less conflicted.

“In both camps at Morningside there was a kind of planned violence,” he said. “I haven’t changed my mind about the two factions and their potential for historical controversy.”

Over the years, he would continue to play a central role in major anniversary commemorations.

“I was immersed in the planning of the 1980, 1990 and 2000 extravaganzas,” Sieber said. “After the big 1982 program, which included the surviving King family, except for Dexter King, I was a consistent participant of international sit-in celebrations at the King Center in Atlanta, Greensboro’s various meeting and eating places and elsewhere throughout the country.”

David Richmond died in 1990 after the 30 th anniversary commemoration. Sieber said he was at Richmond’s deathbed at Moses Cone hospital, and spoke at various memorial programs.

“David was a good person with faults, one of which became acute alcoholism,” Sieber said. “[He died of acute alcoholism] and a broken heart.”

Starting in the early 1990s, Earl Jones and Skip Alston assumed leadership in efforts to recognize the historical significance of the sit-ins with their work to establish the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in the old Woolworth’s building.

The museum opened its doors on Feb. 1, 2010 with a flurry of media attention and high profile visits from dignitaries such as Gov. Beverly Perdue, Sen. Kay Hagan and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Sieber was embraced by a beaming Jibreel Khazan, formerly known as Ezell Blair Jr.

“He was always positive and most helpful to me in my career endeavors,” Sieber said. “His parents were good friends, and my late wife, Delores, was taught by Jibreel’s father at William Penn School in High Point. Jibreel had suffered as much as anyone else during the long civil rights period in which he played a part, yet he always sang Greensboro’s praises and prayed Greensboro’s prayers.”