Planning the Sit-In: A Shoe-Store Owner's Recollection (Ralph Johns)


Ezell Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain were the participants of the initial Greensboro sit-in, but they were supported by a local African-American community with a strong tradition of independent institutions and activism. They also had key allies in the white community. White shoe store owner Ralph Johns had long supported the NAACP, serving as the chapter's vice president in the 1940s and 1950s, and was committed to the idea of demonstrating against segregated public facilities. For several years he tried to persuade black employees and students to go to a lunch counter and demand service. Joseph McNeil believed that Johns's involvement in the black community "was far greater than [that of] any other merchant." As a result of his involvement, eggs were thrown at his store windows and rocks were thrown at him. He received numerous insults and threats, including bomb threats and obscene letters. In this interview from 1978, Johns relates his recollection of his role in the planning of the sit-ins.

Ralph Johns: Woolworth happened to be the target because I chose it and, after eleven years—1949 to 1960—I finally approached a student who was a freshman at A&T in my store buying shoes. I told him what I told others. "Joe McNeil, you got any guts?" "What do you mean?" he asked. (This was in December 1959). Then I told him to get me about four students to go to Woolworths. I would give them money to buy items at different counters and get a receipt for everything they bought, then go to the lunch counter and sit down to get something to eat.

I told him that he would be told by the waitresses that they don't serve Negroes. Then I told him to call her a liar, that Woolworths does serve Negroes, that he was served at four counters and he had the receipts to prove it. Then I told him that, naturally, she would call a manager, and he would try to evict them or call the police. But I said, if he does, then call me on the phone and I would call Jo Spivey of the Greensboro Record to send a report and photographer to the scene at once.

Well, Joe McNeil did not come back to my store. Dorothy Graves, who worked as a clerk in my store, said, "He is just like all the rest you talked to. He ain't coming back." But Joe did come back on February 1, 1960, with three more freshmen├"´┐Ż´┐ŻEzell Blair, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond. They said, "We are here, Cuzzin" (a nickname used by me in my many newspaper articles), "And ready to go." Dorothy, who was standing there, yelled, "Praise the Lord!" For one hour, in the back of my store, I planned strategy, telling them what to do and gave them money to use, and, if trouble started, to call me on the phone. That day was the beginning of the sit-ins that swept America and flowed even into Africa.


Interview with Ralph Johns, January 17, 1978, Greensboro Voices, Jackson Library, University of NC at Greensboro. [].