On Feb.1, 1960, four African American men attending North Carolina Agricultural andTechnical State University began a movement that led to social change in the United States.
Ezell A. Blair, Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil and David L. Richmond took seats at the “whites-only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, N.C., and ordered coffee. Woolworth’s employees refused to serve them and asked the students — later known as the Greensboro Four — to leave.
They refused and remained until the store closed, but their protest caught fire. Others joined their sit-in over the coming days, sparking similar protests throughout the South to end
racial segregation, the systematic practice of denying African Americans access to public accommodations.
The Greensboro Four practiced self-control, were well-dressed and didn’t fight back, even
when taunted and threatened with violence. Soon, more than 70,000 people participated in
similar demonstrations across the county.
One of the 70,000 people was Sadie Ethridge, who was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. She was in Greensboro when the sit-ins started.
“I was not afraid of participating in the sit-in at the Woolworth’s store until our group entered the store and sat at the lunch counter,” said Ethridge.
Instead of service, Ethridge said she received insults. She said the waitress continually told
Ethridge and her friends that they were not welcome — that Woolworth’s didn’t serve “coloreds.”
It was difficult for Ethridge to believe she and her friends were being treated so rudely.
Her surprise soon turned to nervousness as she wondered what might happen next. Challenging the rules of segregation in the 1960s in Southern states like North Carolina could
result in an arrest and a trip to jail. At that time, white segregationists often assaulted African
Americans who didn’t follow their “whites-only” rules.
The New York Times described that era in a Feb. 1960 story: “Segregated lunch counters were common in the South because of numerous Jim Crow laws, which also kept public buildings and sites like libraries, parks, theaters, pools and water fountains segregated. The sit-in protest drew public attention to these injustices through non-violent civil disobedience.”
Ethridge recalled what happened next at the Woolworth’s lunch counter: “I continued to watch the police outside and hoped that they did not come in. As we continued to sit, I was surprised when the police came in and ushered us outside.
“I thought we would be told to leave the premises. I was shocked when the police walked us to jail, which was a few feet away from the store,” Ethridge said.
Fear set in for Ethridge because she had never been arrested and was afraid of what the
police would do to them.
“We gave them our names and they locked us in a cell. I was a little frightened because of how arrested people were treated on TV,” she said.
Ethridge was terrified because she knew what often happened to Blacks who resisted segregation. Her group ended up being charged with trespassing and fined $50 each.
“After we were released, I thanked God for keeping us safe,” she said. “This experience will stay with me forever.”
Ethridge’s vivid description of the sit-in is displayed in many civil rights museums.
A story in The Chicago Defender reported, “A North Carolina college student from Gary, Ind. home from the summer vacation, said she thinks the enthusiasm of the sit-in demonstrations will carry over until next fall.”
The sit-ins ultimately ended racial segregation in stores and restaurants throughout the South.
The movement also drew the respect and admiration of many civil rights leaders, including the
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “It is an electrifying movement of Negro students that
shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities across the South.”
Sadie Ethridge is now very well known in Gary because of her experiences fighting racial injustice and connecting with her community.
Growing up in Gary, education was always important to Ethridge and her family. She had
many family members in North Carolina and often visited there. Her freshman year of high
school, she decided that her dream school was North Carolina Central University.
She quickly realized that in order for her to be able to afford to go there, she would need to
qualify for in-state tuition. So, for the remainder of her high school years, she moved across the
country to live with her aunt. There she attended Hillside High School in Durham, N.C.
Ethridge said this where she began to develop into the woman she is today. While she was at North Carolina Central University, the civil rights movement was in full progress.
She was one of the many people arrested for protesting against racial injustices during that
era. Ethridge’s participation, and that of others in Greensboro, prompted sit-ins throughout the
South, especially in college towns.
Despite being called nonconformists whose conduct was disrupting the peace, they eventually succeeded in forcing Woolworth’s and other businesses and institutions to end their segregationist practices.
This chapter of history is now documented in museums, and those involved like Ethridge
know what they did, were courageous and were able to be a part of something much bigger than themselves. They helped the country.
Asked to reflect on her involvement in the historic movement, Ethridge said, “When I
thought about what doing those things were really about, I came up with it being about kids.
Kids were and always will be the future.”
Ethridge explains that she didn’t want the people where she came from to ever have to experience the things that Black people went through in North Carolina in the 1960s.
She also vowed to always help the future — children.
“I was put on this earth to better kids, to better the future like I tried to do when participating in the sit-ins,” Ethridge said.
After graduating from college, Ethridge returned to Gary and was a teacher for 35 years.
She also supported children’s education issues in northwest Indiana. For 23 years, she has
assisted the Xinos and KudosYouth Organization, which mentors young men and women and
helps them get scholarships for college. She also worked with eighth graders within Delta
Academy to help prepare them for high school.
In 2014, Ethridge was nominated for the Gary Frontiers Service Club’s 2014 Drum Major
Award. This prestigious award is inspired by the “Drum Major Instinct,” the title of a sermon delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. two months before his assassination. The award
recognizes people who dedicate their lives to improving the human condition.
“It was an honor to be nominated with such outstanding individuals for the award,” she said. “I do what I do because I have a passion for it. It’s still amazing to think about how I was noticed for trying to better my community.”