Andrew Dys

Rock Hill school’s 'Friendship Nine Club' eats lunch with Friendship Nine protesters

No school lunch would do Thursday for the 12 members of Dutchman Creek Middle School’s Friendship Nine Club.

“It was right here,” said Briana Baez, 12, who just could not stop smiling.

“History,” said Brandon Knode, 12.

“Awesome,” said Sassy Thrower, 11. “They sat right here. I am right here.”

Lunch for this club on this day had to be in downtown Rock Hill, at a restaurant called the Old Town Bistro in a building that once housed the McCrory’s five and dime store that had a lunch counter.

On the same stools in the same place the kids ate Thursday – 52 years ago to the day, at the same time of day – the civil rights protesters that later would become known as the Friendship Nine sat down. All ordered a cheeseburger and were told no, blacks are not served here.

“I am sitting right in Mr. Williamson’s seat, right where it happened,” said Logan Redmon, 11, and in the sixth grade. “He couldn’t eat here then. They called it discrimination. It was wrong.”

Then the “Mr. Williamson,” who Logan and his friends had learned about, walked over. David “Scoop” Williamson Jr., now 70, put his big hand out. His smile seemed to command the entire room.

“I am honored to have you in my seat,” Williamson told Logan.

Williamson looked at all the kids, moved his oak of an arm in a semicircle to take them all in, and said, “Every one of you kids is great.”

The 1961 protesters – nine black men from the all-black Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, plus a civil rights organizer – were denied service. Each was arrested for trespassing and convicted the next day.

After refusing to pay a fine or post bail, nine of the 10 spent a month on the chain gang at the York County prison farm. Their protest strategy was dubbed “Jail, No Bail,” and the group was called, soon afterward and forever, the Friendship Nine.

And here these kids were, on the anniversary of the sit-in, in the club that honors the dignity of these heroic men, having lunch with some of them.

Teachers Charlene Diefenderfer, Cindy O’Sullivan and Stacey Shope sponsor the club named for Rock Hill’s own civil rights pioneers, launched this year to promote tolerance, diversity and equality.

All figured the best way to celebrate the anniversary of the protest in 1961 was to bring the club to the site of the protest about 10 miles from the school. Principal Norris Williams agreed that history in real life demanded a lunch like this.

W.T. “Dub” Massey, one of the Friendship Nine and a retired teacher who often serves as a substitute teacher at Dutchman Creek, led the kids into the restaurant.

“I was subbing at the school a while back and a voice came over the intercom, ‘Will members of the Friendship Nine Club report for yearbook pictures,’ ” Massey said. “It gave me chills. I walked down and found them. They gave me the honor of having my picture made with them.”

Inside the Old Town Bistro were Williamson and Clarence Graham, another protester, along with Patricia Sims, Elsie White Springs and Phyllis Hyatt – three of the many “City Girls,” female protesters from 1961.

The kids shook hands with all the protesters who changed America for the better.

Then the kids did what kids do. They sat on the 11 stools that really spin and they spun. They ordered and ate and laughed. The adults, protesters turned parents and grandparents, beamed with pride to watch the joy of life lived together.

Because these kids are black, white and Hispanic. Boys and girls. Anybody can be in the Friendship Nine Club at Dutchman Creek.

Then the kids learned that the names of those protesters were on the stools they sat on. Brandon Knode sat on Massey’s stool, Briana Baez on Mack Workman’s stool, Sassy Thrower on Willie McCleod’s stool.

Julie Gathen, 11, read the name on her stool.

“James Wells.”

She was told Wells became a lawyer after the protests landed him in jail.

Mackenzie Crouch, 11, sat on Clarence Graham’s stool. A treat sure came when Graham posed for a picture.

“This is just so cool,” Mackenzie said, and Graham sure agreed.

“It is an honor to take a picture with you,” Graham told Mackenzie.

Ian Brown, 14, sat on the stool of John Gaines, who also became a lawyer. Brown sat next to Myles McDaniel, 14, wearing a bow tie because this was a big day. Myles was told that he sat on the stool of Robert McCullough, one of the Friendship Nine who died a few years ago.

“We called him the professor because he was so smart,” David Williamson told Myles. “Smart like you guys.”

Ian and Myles, two black 14-year-olds whose lives were changed by the actions of the man talking to them and the guts of the men who sat on those same stools.

“Wow, this really is history,” Ian said.

He ate a hamburger. Just like the hamburgers that were not served in 1961 that helped change the world.

Jayla Steele, 13, sat in Tom Gaither’s stool. Lauren Rollerson, 14, sat on the stool of Charles Taylor, the 10th protester arrested who left the chain gang after a few days after making bail.

Alexus Austin, 14, sat in the last stool, named for religious men Brother David Boone, the Rev. Cecil Ivory and the Rev. Robert Toatley. Those men were protest organizers in Rock Hill in the 1950s and 1960s.

The three girls looked at the ladies who were protesters in 1961.

“They made history, all of them,” Alexus said.

T. Smalls Smith had no stool, because there are 12 members of the club and just 11 stools with the names of protesters on them. He sat on a different stool and he was thrilled to be a part of it.

The Dutchman Creek Friendship Nine Club will meet the rest of the year and learn more lessons. But none of them will ever forget this lunch on Jan. 31, when David Williamson and Dub Massey and Clarence Graham – part of the Friendship Nine itself – told each and every one of those kids how honored the men were to share their name with 12 kids who are the future.