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‘All of our history:’ Rock Hill civil rights icon says protests were for everyone

Rock Hill civil rights trailblazer says Black History Month teaches everyone

Phyllis Hyatt, 75, protested segregation during the early 1960s in Rock Hill, South Carolina, at marches and sit-ins. She is proud she and many others helped bring integration to Rock Hill and that the history is shared by all people of all races.
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Phyllis Hyatt, 75, protested segregation during the early 1960s in Rock Hill, South Carolina, at marches and sit-ins. She is proud she and many others helped bring integration to Rock Hill and that the history is shared by all people of all races.

Phyllis Thompson Hyatt doesn’t talk about black history from a book. It comes from her head, and her heart.

“I lived black history,” said Hyatt, who is 75. “We all did. Black people, and all people. We lived it so now we can be proud of how far we have all come.”

The history of blacks is not just civil rights of the 1960s, Hyatt said. It was a Rock Hill that had a bustling black business district and social scene through the early 1970s when, amid urban renewal, those businesses were torn down.

“We had fun in life, even when we were protesting,” Hyatt said. “We marched with a purpose, but with a smile on our faces. We danced at night afterward. We marched for everybody to dance together -- to share that smile.”

During those segregated times, Rock Hill had a thriving business district along West Black Street in downtown, a block west of where the Rock Hill Law Center now stands at the intersection of Dave Lyle Boulevard. There were cab companies, a filling station, mortuary, drug store, restaurants. There was a pool hall and a dance club. Hyatt’s uncle owned the Minute Grill, Rock Hill’s longest continuously operating black restaurant.

“That black business district was the center for us, where black people went,” Hyatt said.

Yet Hyatt said even with that small but strong black business district, just a block away on Main Street were businesses and restaurants where blacks could buy food but not sit down and eat. Some laces where blacks could work but not buy. The protests were about showing the people of Rock Hill that the best Rock Hill was one Rock Hill, Hyatt said.

Hyatt wasn’t always a wife and mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. In 1960 she was a Friendship Junior College student in Rock Hill after graduating from segregated Emmett Scott High School. Her mother worked at a store on Main Street next to what was then McCrory’s dime store. McCrory’s was the focal point of a year of marches in front of segregated downtown Rock Hill businesses.

“There were white girls in the store where my mother worked, and they were friends,” Hyatt said. “But they could go to the dime store and sit and have a Coke. They asked me one day to sit with them. I couldn’t. I was black. We all knew it wasn’t right.”

“We wanted a place where we all could have a Coke together.”

Hayatt said there were many white supporters of integration who said -- privately and a few times publicly -- that segregation was wrong.

Not everybody agreed.

So the struggle to integrate Rock Hill went on for years in marches and protests by young black students in front of the segregated businesses. For months, Hyatt was front and center of the marches and sit-ins and arrests of others, including one in January 1961 when nine of her classmates were jailed for trespassing at McCrory’s.

Those men became known as the Friendship Nine after they chose to stay in jail for a month rather than pay a $100 bail or fine. The “Jail, No Bail” movement that reignited the civil rights movement around the South came from the Friendship Nine.

Friendship Nine member David Williamson Jr., a lifelong friend of Hyatt who protested alongside her, said history is important to teach so young people know the world in 2018 is not how it always was.

“If people, no matter what they look like, what color they are, know what happened in Rock Hill, they would make sure they keep making this world we have now better all the time, Williamson said.

Williamson said the women protesters at the time were often overlooked, but were just as devoted to improving Rock Hill.

“Those ladies, they just wanted to be treated the same as anyone else,” Williamson said. “They wanted equality.”

Hyatt and her female protesters, all Rock Hill natives like her, were dubbed “The City Girls” protesters by the media and it stuck. The marchers were trained in non-violence by organizers and remained so even when spit on, taunted and called racial epithets.

Marches yielded to changing segregation laws and customs in the late 1960s. Hyatt is proud to have been one of the many who played a role.

“I marched not for myself, but for everyone to be able to eat together, live together and be friends,” Hyatt said. “It was not that we did not have lives, or joy, or families. We had that. We just wanted it to be together with everybody else.”

Over the decades, Hyatt has often been asked to give talks during February for Black History Month. She proudly had done it to show people of all races that the history matters to all.

“Black history is part of Rock Hill’s history,” Hyatt said.

Friday in Rock Hill in front of the Five & Dine restaurant at the site of the former McCory’s, Hyatt read the historic marker that stands along Main Street that salutes the protesters. Then she readied to get in her car.

“I was there,” Hyatt said. “That’s all of our history.”

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