Cover of Belles of Liberty. Bennett Students at 1960s Sit-Ins.
Belles of Liberty: Gender, Bennett College, and the Civil Rights Movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. Linda Beatrice Brown. Women and Wisdom Press, Greensboro, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-9888937-0-2. 207 pages. $18. Includes Index and Bibliography.
Belles of Liberty is a long overdue re-examination of the 1960 Greensboro Sit-Ins so as to highlight the role of women, and particularly the role of the students, faculty, and president of the historically black Bennett College. Until Brown’s book, the written history of the historic event when four African American students from A & T [Agricultural and Technical University] sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter provided only part of the story.
The untold part, presented here in a scholarly but eminently readable way, is of how much preparation went into that first actual Greensboro sit-in. Dr. David Jones, President of Bennett in the thirties and forties, had been a courageous race leader. He had brought Eleanor Roosevelt to speak at Bennett and had mentored President Willa Beatrice Player, who followed him and played a very active role in supporting her students in their civil disobedience strategies. In 1958, when no other college or church in Greensboro would host Martin Luther King, Jr., President Player opened Bennett College Chapel to him and anyone else who wished to attend his speech.
From that time a groundwork was laid by faculty and students at Bennett, A&T, and other local colleges that would support this period, 1960-64, of the racial integration of stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and other public accommodations in Greensboro.
Over two hundred Bennett women students participated in the sit-ins, marches, and voter registration drives. Their own drive was called Operation Door Knock, and they would offer to babysit or help with housework so the woman could register to vote. The sit-ins and picketing gathered momentum as students also came from Women’s College (now UNC-Greensboro), more faculty and staff from Bennett joined the marches, as well as many Greensboro citizens, black and white. After the initial success in 1960 the movement was sustained and nourished by the students, staff, and president of Bennett, and in 1963-4, it again took off with a new wave of sit-ins, voter registration drives, and mass marches.
The students underwent training in Civil Disobedience. They dressed as ladies, prepared to go to jail, and they often did. They did not react as crowds jeered and threw things at them. They had a clear, strong sense of purpose as they threw off the chains of Jim Crow and second class citizenship. Their own words reveal how spiritually motivated and connected they felt, how they felt fear but persisted, not only for themselves but for their race and for the justice and equality promised in the American Constitution.
In 1960 Bennett College was seen as the Vassar of the South. Its students came from all over the U.S. Bennett also had exchange students from white colleges. The women’s education included training in the social graces with an emphasis on proper dress and decorum, but they also learned activism and its rationale from their faculty members. Brown calls attention to the inscription in the Bell House to the right of the chapel, the words in Isaiah 61.1: “... He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” Bennett College has never stayed from this sense of mission.
Dr. Brown read all the scholarly and newspaper accounts of the years 1960-64 in Greensboro, and she explores the question of why there is almost no mention of the role President Player, her women students, and their faculty played in the planning, participation in, and the sustaining of the movement. President Player was rather retiring. She was behind her students all the way and cheered them on, visiting them in jail, hosting them when they returned, keeping their parents informed, and making sure that A&T young men were also there when the young women did civil rights work. She did, however, not seek the limelight. Though the Bennett students broke the invisible veil of respectability–women weren’t supposed to be so assertive and “out there” in public working to change society. They were certainly there, but they didn’t call attention to themselves.
In May 1964, several hundred students were arrested, mostly from Bennett and A&T, and jailed in the old Polio Hospital. For the women there was only one toilet and few beds. Some slept on the floor. They did a lot of singing, and they did have visitors, like President Player. They refused to leave until their goals were met, though they were released earlier because of the unsanitary conditions, while negotiations went on.
Bennett Alumni who protested in the 60s, come back to celebrate the publication of Belles of Liberty.
Fifty women wrote, or were interviewed fifty years later for this book, about their experiences between 1958 and 1964 at Bennett. Iris Jeffries, ’61 (pages 116-17) told this story: “This single mission of challenging social injustice was a hallmark for many of us in defining ourselves at that period of our lives. What a wholesome impact it made on our characters and principles and what wonderful leadership we had in our president, Dr. Willa B. Player. While sitting at the lunch counter one day, after a grueling chemistry class and prior to eating, a young child asked his mother, ‘Mama, why aren’t the niggers eating?’ The stoic mother replied: ‘The niggers aren’t hungry.’”
I like Brown’s closing thought (page 152): “Passing the torch of liberation to the next generation is more and more a necessity. Our polarized world must find its hope for reconciliation in the great granddaughters of Harriet Tubman. This legacy that stretches back for almost 200 years must be passed on. My hope is that this story of the stand taken by the Belles of Liberty and their College will bring growing awareness to the young people of today, for there is still a great work ahead, perhaps more complicated than ever, ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.’”
Linda Beatrice Brown has taught at Kent State University, UNC-Greensboro, and Guilford College. A graduate of Bennett College, she is presently the Willa B. Player Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Bennett College, where, until this year, she taught African American Literature. She is the author of three novels, Rainbow ’Roun Mah Shoulder [published first in 1984 as the winner of Carolina Wren Press’s Minority Book Prize], Crossing Over Jordan, and Black Angels.
Linda usually writes about the African American experience. She is also a poet and playwright. Her play Congo’s River Song was performed by the NC Museum of Art. Linda’s novel Black Angels was the “Okra Pick” for the 2009 annual conference of South Carolina Independent booksellers and was named one of the best books of 2009 by the Chicago Public Libraries.
Belles of Liberty grew out of Linda’s lifelong conviction that she has a responsibility to speak out for justice and equality. She is now at work on the sequel to Black Angels. She lives with her husband, Gerald White, in Greensboro.