A sit-in held against a segregated ice cream parlor three years before the famous lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth's in Greensboro will be honored by a new state highway marker.
The June 23, 1957, event at Royal Ice Cream preceded the 1960 protest in Greensboro, which receives credit for sparking similar actions across the South.
Duke University historian William Chafe, author of "Civilities and Civil Rights; Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom," argues that by 1960, "the ground was more ready for this kind of event to trigger a far-reaching movement."
Longtime Durham resident R. Kelly Bryant started the effort to win recognition from the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program with a January 2000 letter to the state Department of Cultural Resources.
Bryant followed up with unsuccessful requests in 2001 and 2003 before mounting a successful campaign with widespread community support two years ago. The marker was scheduled to be dedicated Sunday afternoon.
"We are very proud of what happened here and very proud of having been designated as one of the historical events in the city of Durham," Bryant said.
The Durham sit-in occurred when the Rev. Douglas Moore led seven men and women into Royal Ice Cream through the back door, the one regularly used by black people. They walked to the front and sat down in booths reserved exclusively for white people.
The group declined requests to leave and was arrested. The seven were convicted of trespassing the next day, and each was fined $10 plus court costs.
The convictions were appealed, in vain, up the chain all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
Mary Elizabeth Clyburn, one of the three living participants in the Royal Ice Cream sit-in, said she remains proud of her role in the Durham sit-in.
"It's extremely important for me that they finally recognized or gave us some credit for getting involved when we did in trying to do something about the terrible conditions that (were) going on then in 1957," said Clyburn, a Newark, N.J., substitute elementary-school teacher who now goes by her married surname of Hooks.
She called the indignities forced upon blacks in Durham in the 1950s "extremely hurtful," citing the segregated seating at the Carolina Theatre and the lack of seating at local eateries for black people.
Eddie Davis, organizer of the ceremony and a former president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said the significance of the 1957 event goes beyond its being the state's first. He said that's because the legal appeals showed the potential for using courts to promote social change.
"Some people think that even though they were unsuccessful and ... were found guilty along the way and did not have the guilty verdict overturned at any stage, it still raised the national consciousness within civil rights organizations," Davis said. "So I think people recognize that even though they were unsuccessful, it still indeed helped to dismantle segregation."