Tuesday afternoon was not just any other day in the restaurant business for “Five & Dine” owner Selena Kelemen. There were food specials, sure, and customers.
But four of her customers were specials themselves. She had heard of them, read about them, cried over their efforts to make America a better place.
“History, right here; it is real,” Kelemen said to W.T. “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, Willie McCleod and David Williamson Jr. “To meet you guys, you men are history.
“I am honored to meet you.”
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The four men all replied that they were honored to meet her, and honored that she will keep in place the historic lunch counter and stools where they and other members of the “Friendship Nine” sat down to protest segregation 52 years ago.
Those four Friendship Junior College students, teens in 1961, and six others sat down to eat at what was then – on the same spot in the same Main Street building – the whites-only McCrory’s five and dime lunch counter.
Minutes later they were arrested, dragged out the back door and thrown in jail. They were convicted the next day of violating the racial segregation laws of the day. Nine of them spent 30 days in hard labor at the York County prison farm to protest segregation.
They weren’t the first to “sit in” at a segregated lunch counter, but these men refused to post bail and go home after they were arrested.
The “jail, no bail” strategy was born right in the spot that Kelemen sat with the men Tuesday, the spot where she now makes her own living.
Kelemen named her restaurant, which opened in September, to honor its past, vowing to someday meet the men behind the history.
When the Old Town Bistro, the restaurant that preceded the Five & Dine in the location, closed earlier this year, rumors abounded that the historic site would be lost, Graham said.
“We are excited that you are keeping this place open,” Graham said. “It is not about us. It is about kids who don’t know that what happened really happened, and it happened right here, to us. It is about older folks who maybe don’t want to remember those days.
“People need to know that it all happened right here, and they can still come here and see it.”
The history of the protest, which re-energized the civil rights movement across the South, is vital to York County and Rock Hill, said Lisa Meadows, executive director of the Rock Hill-York County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
The agency markets Friendship Nine history and the site of the downtown lunch counter to tour groups and visitors from across the country.
Meadows even has a picture of the Friendship Nine on her business card.
“It is crucial for us to keep this tradition going,” she told the group at the Five & Dine on Tuesday.
For Williamson, McCleod and Massey, the excitement comes in keeping the history each helped create accessible to the public.
“This place is important not just to us, but to this city and community,” Massey said.
The 11 stools – which feature the engraved names of the protesters and their adult leaders – also will remain. Those stools still spin and support customers, who can sit on them and order a meal.
To work there, all Five & Dine servers have to know the names of the Friendship Nine: Williamson, Graham, Massey, McCleod, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, James Wells, Mack Workman and the late Robert McCullough.
“This place wouldn’t be what it is without you,” Kelemen said, thrilled to be shaking hands with four of them in the same spot where they made history.