Years before the famous lunch counter sit-ins swept the South in the early 1960s and energized the civil rights movement, a group of trailblazers made a courageous stand of their own in Kansas.
Sheinelle Jones, co-host of the 3rd Hour of TODAY, recently learned from her mother about the fortitude of a group of young Black students, who staged a sit-in at Dockum Drug Store in 1958 in her hometown of Wichita. She also discovered she had connection to them — they were close family friends.
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To kick off our Changemakers series, which highlights the accomplishments of Black Voices who are leading in their communities and working to inspire change, Sheinelle shared the story of the brave Black students who integrated the lunch counter at the popular downtown drug store, which had previously refused to serve African Americans.
Peggy Wesley was 15 years old when she joined the sit-in, which lasted for three weeks.
"We sat in the stools there, and just occupied the space at the counter," Wesley told Sheinelle on TODAY Monday. "And we were very quiet. We were trained not to say anything. If somebody said anything to us, we were not to respond to any negativity, of course and name-calling and whatever, and there was a lot of that. We just went in shifts and sat there."
The discrimination against the local Black community showed that segregation wasn't just an issue in the South.
"They politely told us we could get food to carry out," another member of the sit-in, Dr. Galyn Vesey, said about Dockum Drug Store.
"Certainly I can remember having to, if I went to a movie theater downtown, having to sit in the balcony," sit-in protester Prentice Lewis told Sheinelle. "Couldn't sit on the main floor when I was in school, and I couldn't go swimming at the municipal swimming pool. I had to swim in the little postage stamp swimming pool."
The NAACP Youth Council hoped that a sit-in for equality at the one Dockum location would cause a change in the whole chain of Dockum stores.
The students also knew that they were putting themselves in danger after seeing events like the virulent opposition nine Black students had faced a year earlier in integrating a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
"There were activities going in other places like Little Rock," Vesey said. "Things that happened -- Emmett Till. And so we knew that this wasn't anything to play with."
One of the leaders of the sit-in, Carol Parks-Haun, who was 19 at the time, began the silent protest when she entered Dockum dressed in her Sunday best, sat at the counter and asked for a Coke.
More Black students followed her and also ordered a soda, which was denied by the store employees amid a tense atmosphere.
"A young white male looked up and saw me, and he turned so he would bump me," Vesey said. "And he didn't hurt me, but I knew why he did that."
After the sit-in, which went on for three weeks, the owner walked into the store and told the manager to serve the Black patrons because he was losing too much business.
"We were just elated when we finally could sit down and have a soda with our friends at the counter," Wesley said.
The sit-in led to the entire Dockum chain and its owner, Rexall Drugstore chain abolishing discriminatory practices at their stores nationwide. The Dockum Drug Store sit-in was the first successful student-led sit-in of the civil rights era, according to the NAACP.
The successful sit-in was soon overshadowed by more high-profile sit-ins down in the South, particularly the ones in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. But the Black students from Wichita have always taken pride in helping to spark the movement.
"There is such a thing as positive contagion," Vesey said. "Contagion doesn't have to be negative. And if you're gonna be part of something that's gonna be passed on, growing up at that point in time, you better damn sure make sure that it's something positive that you can go home about and feel proud about."
Many of those who took part in the sit-in didn't even tell their own families at the time.
Vesey said he never even told his father while it was going on, while Wesley's own daughters didn't know about it for years because she never spoke about it. Sheinelle grew up in Wichita and didn't know the story until recently.
"It was another event in our lives that was over," Lewis said. "And it didn't appear to be a big thing then. Most of our parents who were not involved in the NAACP didn't know that we were doing that.
They are hoping that 63 years after their courageous stand, they can inspire the younger generation, millions of whom marched in protests against racial injustice and police brutality last summer.
"The water is fine," Vesey said about his advice to young people. "It may be too cold sometimes, maybe too warm even sometimes. But seriously, you'll feel better about yourself if we strive to make this a better world, a better community."
Their fight for equality even inspired a descendant of the owner of the drug store to reach out to some of them six decades later. Tracy Harrelson is the granddaughter of Robert Dockum, who owned a group of drugstores under the Rexall Drug Company in Wichita.
Harrelson was only six months old when the sit-in occurred, but she was inspired to reach out to some of those who took part in it. She was part of a diverse group of women on a Zoom call this past summer when the idea popped into her mind.
"We were all talking about the racial tension at the time during the summer and how can we make a difference as Christians, and as women," she said on the 3rd hour of TODAY Monday. "And that thought came to my mind, the words 'Dockum drugstore sit-in,' literally came to my mind as I was listening and being a part of that phone call."
She wanted to make amends after all these years.
"I felt like I needed to apologize for my family, and I also wanted an opportunity to meet them, (tell them) that it was a courageous thing that they did," she said.
Harrelson met seven of the men and women from the sit-in during an hour-long Zoom call.
"And it was just beautiful I was able to express an apology to them," she said. "And the care and concern and the compassion that I had. I got to hear their stories firsthand, of what they experienced, and it was just beautiful."
"It was really, really, really nice of her to want to apologize for her grandfather," Wesley said. "I thought it was a big step. And we really did as a group, we really appreciated her apology. It was accepted."
Harrelson hopes the peaceful protesters at her grandfather's drug store will be remembered for their bravery.
"They're heroes," she said. "They have changed the course of history. This brought an extreme amount of hope, and I think that's what God wants to tell us today too, is that there is hope. And there is reconciliation and there is peace available for the ones that are willing to come together."