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December 11, 1959
Guest post by Deidre B. Flowers, doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.
In the December 1959 issue of the Bennett Banner, Roslyn Cheagle, president of Bennett College’s Student Senate, penned a challenge to her fellow Bennett Belles and Bennett’s faculty members, asking the college community directly, “Where Do You Stand?”
Her article was published two months before North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State College (NCA&T) students were credited with launching the student-led sit-in movement. Today’s reader can speculate about whether the “stand” Cheagle inquires about, in the article’s title, was a reference to one of two southern Jim Crow laws that restricted the ability of black Americans to enjoy the freedoms of citizenship. The “stand” either referred to the denial of black citizens’ right to sit and eat at lunch counters, forcing black patrons to literally stand and eat, or leave the facility with their food and consume it elsewhere. Or Cheagle’s reference was to the requirement that black commuters stand and relinquish their seat in the rear of the bus, if all the “whites only” seats in the front section of the bus were full, to any white passenger boarding Greensboro’s buses. This was a requirement in most cities throughout the South.
Reading her words, the intent of her inquiry becomes clear. She is asking Bennett College students and faculty—and by extension, Greensboro’s and North Carolina’s black citizens—where they stand on the issues of racial segregation and the fight for black Americans to have full access to their rights as citizens of the United States. She enumerates several personal liberty infringements that included: “crow’s nest” (balcony) seating at movie theatres; denial of the opportunity to try on clothing and shoes in department stores; denial of the use of lunch counters in department stores; denial of the use of main entry doors at public facilities; and limited career opportunities—all of which were based solely on one’s race. Essentially, she is asking if the black community in Greensboro was willing to continue to be complicit in their own oppression by not resisting Jim Crow laws. Her inquiry can also be interpreted as a call for action to Bennett’s black women students, as well as other college students in Greensboro, the state of North Carolina, and Bennett’s faculty members. Cheagle urges them to “think and act upon these questions while traveling home for the Christmas holiday.” Proposed options for the community to take action included: patronizing black-owned businesses, organizing to fight for their rights, development of race pride, and joining the local NAACP. She prompts readers to think about what steps they were individually willing to take to help end the oppressive system of racial segregation under which black American citizens were forced to live, in an effort to secure for themselves and future generations those rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
Cheagle’s article calls on the Bennett College community, at this juncture in history, to continue its long tradition of protest and activism begun in the 1930s, and to demand that America live up to the ideals outlined in its founding documents. The role of Bennett’s women students in the initiation of the 1960 student-led sit-ins, and its history of protest and activism, have been overshadowed by the actions of NCA&T’s four male students who received credit for initiating the student-led sit-in movement. Despite the slight of history, this article confirms what many have said privately, but few have acknowledged publicly—that the idea, meeting planning space, and planning strategies were originated on the campus of Bennett College for Women. Just as Bennett had since its reorganization as a college for women in 1926, its students and faculty continued throughout the civil rights movement to be at the forefront of fighting for citizenship rights, improving the living conditions of local black citizens, and expanding the role, place, and voice of black women in American society.