History now served at lunch counter

mgarfield@heraldonline.comFebruary 26, 2011 

  • To read all The Herald's coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Friendship Nine sit-ins, including video interviews and a gallery of historic and contemporary photos, go to heraldonline.com/friendshipnine.

  • The department store chain founded by Pennsylvania entrepreneur John McCrorey opened its first store in Rock Hill in 1918.

    At its peak, the company operated 1,300 stores around the nation, selling housewares, cosmetics, shoes and clothing. Historical accounts say McCrorey took the "e" out of his name to avoid paying the cost of the extra letter in store signs.

    Like most establishments at the time, McCrory's did not allow blacks to eat at the lunch counter. Blacks could shop in the store and buy take-out orders but were not allowed to sit at lunch counters or eat alongside white customers. Beginning in 1960, the Rock Hill McCrory's, along with other downtown establishments, were targeted for sit-ins that helped energize the civil rights movement.

    McCrory's closed its Rock Hill store in 1997 as the company struggled to emerge from bankruptcy. Two stores moved in, but neither lasted more than a few years. By 2003, the building was vacant.

    Sources: Old Town Bistro history; Herald archives

  • What: Friendship Nine dinner gala

    When: 7 tonight

    Where: Palmetto Room, in the back of the Old Town Bistro, 135 E. Main St., Rock Hill.

    Speaker: Cleveland Sellers, civil rights activist and president of Voorhees College

    Tickets: Available for $30/person, $55/couple before 4 p.m. at the Old Town Bistro (803-327-9222), the Rock Hill-York County Convention and Visitors Bureau (803-329-5200), or the Baxter Hood Center, 452 S. Anderson Road.

— Diners can order lunch at the counter and even sit in the stools briefly occupied by the Friendship Nine.

The building - once home to McCrory's five-and-dime - now houses the Old Town Bistro, a restaurant that attracts a mix of business and blue-collar types, but is also a popular stop for school groups and tourists who travel to civil rights landmarks.

Sometimes William "Dub" Massey, a Friendship Nine member who still lives in Rock Hill, tells the history to visiting groups.

"People want us to come down and tell the story," he said.

Massey's stool sits on the far right, marked by a plaque that bears his name. It's one of many links to McCrory's, where college students staged their 1961 sit-in.

The two-story building is headquarters for the local Realtors association. There is also a financial services firm and the Palmetto Room banquet space.

And tonight, it's the scene of the "Friends of the Nine" Gala - the final of a series of events marking the 50th anniversary of the Friendship Nine's "jail, no bail" sit-ins.

Stools, counter preserved

During a $1.5 million restoration, crews took pains to preserve much of the history, including the stools used by members of the Friendship Nine. They have been reupholstered, but they are the same ones from the McCrory's days.

The pink Formica lunch counter and frame remains, although a new, sturdier wooden cover was installed on top.

Visitors "like the idea of the lunch counter being where it was," said Butch Brindel, CEO of the Piedmont Regional Association of Realtors. "They can come in and experience it, and eat in the same place those guys sat in 1961.

"It's kind of a cool thing."

Stacey and Lucas Giannatos run the Old Town Bistro, serving up meatloaf, fried flounder and Italian and Greek specialties. Stacey Giannatos has studied the Friendship Nine so she can educate visitors.

"They ask so many questions about the stools, the counter, where it took place," Giannatos said. "I made some books and I hand them out, with the history of the place."

Local builder Bob Belk said McCrory's ranks among his proudest career achievements.

"When we got in there, it all looked intact, but we found a good bit of rot," Belk said. "In an old building like that, you can't plan everything.

"You've got to make decisions on the spot, based on what you found that day."

Talk of a museum

Over the years, some black leaders and Friendship Nine members talked about turning the McCrory's building into a civil rights museum. In 2003, talks progressed to the point that the Rock Hill City Council committed $15,000 to secure an option on the property.

Instead, the Realtors association worked with the Museum of York County to showcase the building's history, explaining how it fits into the story of Rock Hill.

A hallway called "Heritage Hall" features photographs depicting Rock Hill's birth as a railroad town, the development of downtown and acts of courage shown during the civil rights movement.

A marker on Main Street describes the sit-ins, arrests and jailing of the Friendship Nine.

A display case holds a piece of the lunch counter, original salt and pepper shakers and an old menu holder.

James Wells, one of the Friendship Nine, would like to have seen a museum, but he's satisfied with how things turned out.

"They've always welcomed us there," said Wells. "They sell good food and do a profitable business.

"A museum would have been something different, (and) may or may not have made it."

Massey plans to bring his grandson, William Jr., now 4, to the lunch counter in a few years when he is old enough to understand what happened there.

This time, he will buy lunch and talk about the first time he sat down.

"Hopefully, I'll be around when he reaches the right age. He'll know the full story then."

Want to go?

What: Friendship Nine dinner gala

When: 7 tonight

Where: Palmetto Room, in the back of the Old Town Bistro, 135 E. Main St., Rock Hill.

Speaker: Cleveland Sellers, civil rights activist and president of Voorhees College

Tickets: Available for $30/person, $55/couple before 4 p.m. at the Old Town Bistro (803-327-9222), the Rock Hill-York County Convention and Visitors Bureau (803-329-5200), or the Baxter Hood Center, 452 S. Anderson Road.

Matt Garfield 803-329-4063

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