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Honoring The Chapel Hill 9

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is the day in 1960 when nine black teenagers sat down at a lunch counter in Chapel Hill, N.C. They asked to be served the same as white customers. They were not the first people to make this demand. Black students famously sat down at a Woolworth's in Greensboro a few weeks before, and their act added to the momentum of the civil rights movement. Today in Chapel Hill, community and town officials recall the Chapel Hill Nine. Here's Leoneda Inge of member station WUNC.

LEONEDA INGE, BYLINE: The nine African-American teenage boys in Chapel Hill were tight growing up; they even had a club. Clyde Perry says they lived close to each other and went to the same school in the segregated town.

CLYDE PERRY: The hospital was - had a black waiting room and a white waiting room. The bus station was the same thing, a black and white waiting room. I mean, you know, that's the way we were brought up.

INGE: But Perry says, soon their lives changed forever. Four African-American male college students in Greensboro asked to be served at a Woolworth's counter on February 1, 1960. Four weeks later, the group known as the Chapel Hill Nine would do the same.

PERRY: Big John knew why we were there, I'm sure, 'cause he jumped on us right quick Get out; get out. Asked Jim - why are you sitting down? Get up, and get out. You know? He didn't.

INGE: Despite demands to leave by John Carswell, or Big John, none of the teenagers got up from the counter at Colonial Drug. David Mason was 17 years old.

DAVID MASON JR: My greatest fear was that I would not be able to restrain myself in case someone would spit on me. I think I could take a punch, but I could not take being spit on.

INGE: The police were called, and the nine boys were escorted out of the drug store and later charged with trespassing. And so began acts of civil disobedience in Chapel Hill.

PAM HEMMINGER: We're just so proud of our young men - who are older men now - but very proud of the steps they took and how brave they were.

INGE: Pam Hemminger is the mayor of Chapel Hill. She formed a task force to help begin documenting the town's civil rights history, and one of those things is at the local library.

MOLLY LUBY: And I think I've got a big enough table for it. We'll find out.

INGE: Molly Luby rolls out an 11-foot-long banner. Organizations can borrow from the library to display the town's civil rights timeline. Luby says it's a big hit.

LUBY: Every time we bring out this timeline and our living members of the Chapel Hill Nine are there, there are standing ovations. These guys are the rock stars of Chapel Hill right now, and I'm so happy.

INGE: There are even Chapel Hill civil rights trading cards. If you ask the four living members of the Chapel Hill Nine if they are heroes or rock stars, they say no. Mason says it was just something they had to do.

MASON: Our objective was to right a wrong. And we were quite determined to do that, whatever the consequences might be.

INGE: Colonial Drug is no longer a business on West Franklin Street. The spot where the Chapel Hill Nine took a seat is now a wine bar.

You not a wine bar type of guy? I don't know.

MASON: No.

PERRY: My days of wine and roses are long behind me.

(LAUGHTER)

INGE: Three of the four men said they hadn't visited the site in 50 years or more, vowing to never come back after being turned away. But that may change. A crowd is expected today to celebrate where a Chapel Hill Nine marker will be erected. One suggestion is a bench so they can sit down.

For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge in Chapel Hill, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.