News Archive

Remembering Lynchburg's First Civil Rights Sit-In

Fifty years ago, two College alumnae made Lynchburg history with courageous protest

12/15/2010 9:30:04 AM


The following article was published in Lynchburg The News & Advance on December 14, 2010. It is reprinted with permission.

By Darrell Laurant

Fifty years ago today, six college students from Lynchburg, like Rosa Parks before them, took a step into history by sitting down.

And, in the case of James Hunter, sharing a cup of coffee.

“I remember there were six of us, and only five seats together,” said Hunter, a Lynchburg College student on Dec. 14, 1960, when he and the other students walked into Patterson’s Drug Store on Main Street and sat down at the segregated lunch counter. “So I slid over and took another seat, and there was a guy in between me and the other five.

“Because of that, I don’t think they (the counter workers) thought I was connected to the others. I ordered a cup of coffee, and was served. Then the guy next to me got up and left — I think he realized what was happening, and didn’t want any part of it — and I slid over to my left into the empty seat and gave my coffee to the black guy, who started drinking it. That was symbolic.”

Kenneth Greene, the recipient of the coffee, was a student at Virginia Seminary. Barbara Thomas, who was clutching a Bible, was his classmate. Terrill Brumback was Hunter’s friend at Lynchburg College; Mary-Edith Bentley (now Mary Abu-Saba) and Rebecca Owen were from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

“I think we honestly believed we could go in there, talk to the owner, and he would realize how wrong he was,” said Abu-Saba. ”I was a minister’s daughter, and I was used to people being nice and reasonable.”

Yet in the minds of those who strongly supported segregation, the social barrier between blacks and whites was a precarious dike that could not be breached, even in a small way. Every leak, they knew, might be enough to bring the whole barrier crashing down.

William Patterson, the owner of Patterson’s Drug Store, was one of those who felt compelled to guard the dike. The multi-racial group of idealistic young people who entered his store just after 5 p.m. that mid December afternoon was prepared to pierce it.

“He wasn’t there when we arrived, so somebody called him,” Abu-Saba recalled. “When he showed up, his face was beet red. You could see the veins in his forehead.”

Five of the Patterson Six had planned this act of civil disobedience in advance, veterans of meetings at Virginia Seminary. Abu-Saba was different.

“I was on my way to practice for a piano recital at Presser Hall,” she recalled, “and I ran into Rebecca walking across campus, and she said, ‘Come on, we need another person for this (the sit-in).’ I thought about it a minute and told her, ‘OK, as long as I can be home for supper.’”

That was not to be.

Patterson told the group he was prepared to call the police, then followed through on his threat.

“They showed up a few minutes later,” Hunter recalled, “and stood behind us for a little while, sort of sizing the situation up.”

“Just walk away, and it will be over,” Lt. E.P. Puckett told the students. Nobody moved, so they were arrested.

“Handcuffs and everything,” said Abu-Saba. “I remember one of the officers holding my elbow to help me into the paddy wagon, because my arms were cuffed behind me.”

As for her dinner plans, The News reported in its front-page story: “All six were locked up without supper. Police said they arrived too late for the evening meal.”

So much has changed since then. Patterson’s Drug Store was eventually torn down, like the segregation laws that its owner defended. A Crestar Bank building and the Free Clinic of Central Virginia have replaced it. No historic plaque marks the historic event on that block between 10th and 11th streets. The five surviving members of the Patterson Six have largely lost contact with one another in recent years.

Rebecca Owen died in 2002. Mary Abu-Saba and James Hunter, who knew each other only slightly but will forever be united by a tense 20 minutes a half-century ago, now live at opposite ends of the country — Abu-Saba in Alameda, Calif., Hunter in Lincoln, Maine.

Both followed their sit-in experience with a lifetime of civic activism. Hunter is a retired social worker and counselor, Abu-Saba (who married Elias Abu-Saba, a Virginia Tech student from Lebanon) currently does fund-raising for a non-profit that rebuilds schools and houses in the Palestinian territories.

Bailed out the night of their arrest (“It was a black businessman,” Hunter said, “but I can’t remember his name”), the Patterson Six went on trial for trespassing on Jan. 5, 1961, with every seat in the Municipal Court spectator’s section taken.

The six students were convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The Lynchburg college trustees met at the segregated James River Club to debate the fate of Hunter and Brumback and decided on a statement of censure rather than expulsion. Across town at R-MWC, president Bill Quillian held firm against strong trustee and alumna pressure to expel Abu-Saba and Owen.

“I’ll always be grateful to him (Quillian) for that,” Abu-Saba said. “It was very courageous of him.”

The jail was also segregated, and Hunter said, “Terrill and I were in with six other guys, and at first they made some vaguely threatening comments. But I smoked back then, and a lot of people sent me cigarettes to show their support. We played poker for cigarettes, and I was only a fair player, so I became pretty popular.”

Hunter was involved in one of those poker games one night when a group of sympathizers appeared beneath the windows of the jail, singing hymns and holding up candles.

“It was just unbelievable,” Abu-Saba said. “I felt humble.”

After 20 days, the Patterson Six was released on good behavior.

“I do see it as one of the most significant events of my life,” Abu-Saba said, “although there have been others.”

“Maybe we had some small part in overturning segregation,” Hunter said. “It really wasn’t something that could be rationally justified.”

See this story in The News & Advance here

Read more news coverage of the sit-in anniversary here,0,1698299.story

See Randolph College's remembrance of the event here

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations