An Overdue Historic Marker for Raleigh Civil Rights History

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) —¬†They were the Raleigh college students who helped ignite a movement for civil rights in America. And while North Carolina has hundreds of historical markers across the state, the site in Raleigh where the largest number of civil-rights protesters were arrested sits unmarked.

As ABC11 celebrates Black History Month, we’re highlighting the volunteer-driven effort to ensure Raleigh never forgets what happened in Cameron Village.

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It’s Raleigh; February 1960; Dozens of local Black college students are activating against discrimination.

What happened on Fayetteville Street and blocks away at Cameron Village was something Raleigh had never seen before.

“I get chills when I think about it,” said Heather Doyle, a volunteer with the Friends of Oberlin Village. Once Doyle learned the history, she couldn’t forget it.

READ MORE: Heritage Commission looking to add markers of people, places of NC’s Civil Rights movement

At what we call the Village District now, where the regional library stands alongside The Fresh Market, it was the F.W. Woolworth in 1960. It was a centerpiece of Raleigh’s still new, popular, and segregated Cameron Village Shopping Center. It was the first shopping center like it in the state. And it was for White people only.

That was until Feb. 10, 1960 — when students from Shaw and Saint Augustine’s universities began demonstrating outside; including a sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in Cameron Village.

“It was a peaceful protest. They didn’t respond to any taunting or jeering,” Doyle said. “I’m sure people said some ugly things to them. And they sat.”

The young demonstrators resisted calls for them to go. Raleigh Police was called in.

“The police were called in and arrests were made. About 40 students were arrested,” said Doyle.

A total of 41 people were arrested at Cameron Village — the first arrests of non-violent student protesters in those early days of the movement.

The charges were later dropped. But what happened in Raleigh helped launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw. It also triggered countless other demonstrations across the country.

Raleigh desegregated four years later; President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. But walking through the Village District now, shoppers would never know the sacrifices made here for change.

“It needs to be marked, yes. It needed to be commemorated,” Doyle said.

And so, Doyle and the team of volunteers at the Friends of Oberlin Village nominated and won approval from the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission to place a historical marker where the Woolworth once stood.

It will be one of 50 markers across the state in the new North Carolina Civil Rights Trail.

“I want people to think, wow!” Doyle said. “People can stop and think about what happened here, not too long ago, and how so much has changed. How you can go into a store and we can all sit together and not be faced with that kind of violent reaction.”

On April 29, the historical marker will be unveiled in a special ceremony with city leaders, some of the students who participated in the sit-ins, along with members of Raleigh Police.

Organizers at the Friends of Oberlin Village hope the moment marks a chance for the city to come together.