BY ALEXIS DAVIS
GREENSBORO, N.C. — North Carolina A&T State University’s kickoff to Black History Month varies from typical events at other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This year, N.C. A&T’s annual February One commemoration celebrates the 62nd anniversary of the A&T Four.
On Feb. 1, 1960, freshmen David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) sat at F.W. Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro to protest segregation.
The February One Monument is an important landmark on A&T’s campus that sets it apart from other institutions. The four courageous freshmen who conducted the sit-in, which was the catalyst for similar sit-ins nationwide, are portrayed in bronze, depicted in similar clothing they wore that day. The monument includes a summary of the sit-in.
When they sat down at the 66-seat, L-shaped metal counter on 132 S. Elm St., they were denied service but stayed until they were forced to leave.
“It just goes back to the true meaning of Aggie Pride,” said Armani May, a former Mister A&T from South Haven, Michigan. “They were just so courageous and can be looked at as the standard of being a Black man willing to break barriers. The official meaning of Aggie Pride is achieving great goals in everything and producing renowned individuals dedicated to excellence so, it’s all in the acronym. They knew what they were standing on and standing for.”
On Feb. 2, 1960, 25 students from A&T, Bennett College and neighboring institutions joined the original four in their sit-ins. As February progressed, sit-ins started throughout North Carolina. Before the month ended, the sit-ins had spread to more than 250 U.S. cities.
In July 1960, the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro was desegregated. All four of the sit-in participants led lives of change and advocacy and never forgot their N.C. A&T roots.
Dawn Murphy is assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and coordinates the commemoration. She was a classmate of Frank McCain (Class of 1987), son of Franklin McCain. Frank McCain convinced her to attempt this year’s celebration in person after 2021’s celebration was scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The part of all this that brings me the most joy is when the families tell me that I did a good job,” Murphy said. “We’re honoring their parents, their fathers. I always ask at the end for suggestions from them for next year. I’ll usually call Frank and ask what we should do this year. I really at first considered having it virtually, but Frank said to me, ‘Well, Dawn, why would we do that when we do everything else in person?’ ”
This year, A&T will honor the four in person on campus in Deese Ballroom. The invitation-only event will be livestreamed. McNeil and his family will attend and hope to see Khazan virtually. Family members of McCain and Richmond will attend also.
“It’s our history,” Murphy said. “These were 19-year-olds and we want our students to see the type of impact they can have. These students made the decision to sit at a lunch counter and did not know what was going to happen. I think it’s important to recognize their dedication, commitment and sacrifice. They could have been expelled from school. These men were fearless and we will continue to honor them every year.”
The families of the four have stressed how important it is for their descendants to attend N.C. A&T. Many were classmates with A&T with McCain’s grandson, Franklin “Mac” McCain III, who graduated recently. He now is a cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles after signing as a free agent with the Denver Broncos in 2021.
This year’s gathering will begin with a breakfast, program and video presentation. Current student government association (SGA) president Verdant Julius will welcome the attendees and those tuning in virtually.
This year’s gathering will include chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr.’s presentation of the Human Rights Medal, a video of the A&T Four and a keynote address by North Carolina Supreme Court associate justice Anita Earls. Afterward, guests will lay a memorial wreath at the monument.
“I love participating in February One activities and engaging in meaningful conversations with other Aggies about the impact of the A&T Four,” said Aigne Taylor, current SGA executive parliamentarian. “My favorite activity is the breakfast because it’s a great way to network with current students and alumni.”
The university will unveil the inaugural February One Scholars Program. The initiative will fully fund 15 incoming students who are high achievers and heavily involved in extracurricular activities and service. They will also participate in the university’s Honors and Dowdy Scholars Enrichment programs.
The College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the College of Education, and the John R. and Kathy R. Hairston College of Health and Human Sciences will each have five students receive the award funded by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s $45 million donation to the university.
Last year, N.C. A&T created a video titled It’s About Us, available on YouTube, in place of the in-person program.
“I think it’s a rite of passage. It’s a tradition at the university that every student needs to experience or at least have the opportunity to experience,” Frank McCain said. “Because it is a part of not only the university’s history or the history of the United States, or international history, it is really part of their history as students as well, because if not for what these teenage boys did at their school, they would not be afforded some of the levels of luxury they have at A&T.”
Brenda Caldwell, a Greensboro native and former SGA president at A&T, said the A&T Four’s action of taking personal risks for their beliefs inspired her to take her presidency to the next level.
“I refuse to let their legacy die out at the hands of my generation,” Caldwell said. “We want to keep making a difference and change in the Greensboro community and in the country. Their leadership directly affected how seriously I took my role as president.”
The F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Greensboro is now part of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The museum has the original seats and counter. The A&T Four have an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington celebrating their impact.
“When the sit-ins began, Greensboro tried to distance themselves from them, but over time, they could not ignore the monumental changes that were being made right in their backyard,” Caldwell said. “If you go to the Woolworth’s museum, it’s really based on that. In Greensboro, especially for Black people, it’s a point of pride and even more so for the ones that were alive during those times and actually knew these freshmen.”
Often referred to as the Greensboro Four, the A&T Four and the A&T community disavow this reference because students did not have the city’s support at the time of the sit-ins. After their initial sit-in, they faced disapproval and attacks.
AN ON-CAMPUS PRESENCE IS IMPORTANT
One of the residence options for A&T first-year students includes Aggie Village. It is positioned at the heart of campus and comprises four residential units named after the four: Richmond Hall, McCain Hall, Blair Hall and McNeil Hall.
“When I first got to A&T, I knew going to an HBCU you will be given a lot of history of the university, but one of the things that really stuck with me was the story of the A&T Four and then physically being able to be on A&T’s campus, the villages was always the place I wanted to be, whether it be living in, working or both,” said Kariatu Jalloh, an undergraduate alumna, current grad student and former student housing associate. “So, around that time, COVID had just hit, and I actually was living my dream, and I was working in McNeil Hall. So, that within itself, I felt like it’s only right that I not only carry on what I feel like is tradition with Aggie alums and take the pictures, but I feel like I’ve lived here for almost a year now, I have to take this picture.”
Over the last decade, HBCU students have taken graduation pictures to the next level. Some Aggies have rented cars, bought bulldogs similar to the Aggie mascot and created videos to memorialize their graduation. Out of all the landmarks and sights on campus, students always make it their mission to take graduation pictures by the bronze statue.
“I think it depends on people’s individual stories,” Jalloh said. “I’ve noticed graduation pictures hit a different spot when people have struggled a bit, but I feel like it shows in the pictures, people that are doing it more so just for the showmanship. I think it reflects on the places that they choose, the outfits that they choose or what they might choose to symbolize in their photo. The people who really have a story to tell or want to tell a story through their graduation pictures of their college experience, that shows.”
On Feb. 1, 2018, Jalloh attended her first February One celebration and met Khazan and McNeil. Listening to them speak reminded Jalloh that society is not far removed from their struggles today.
“A&T gives you a chance to write your own story and write a good one,” Jalloh said. “I’m just glad that we have the space and the resources to rewrite our own history and create legacies that live on beyond us.”
When students are introduced to the university through a physical or virtual tour, A&T makes it a priority to inform the students of the school’s legacy. Some see this as pressure, others see it as a privilege.
“If A&T does not do this, then how can we expect anyone else to recognize the contribution those young men made?” Frank McCain said. “I think A&T has a responsibility because it is the birthplace of student-led sit-ins, and that is something to be proud of. We have to make sure we continue to highlight our history.
“What you don’t want to do is you don’t want a student to leave, especially an A&T student, to leave campus after four years and someone in this world to ask them about the sit-ins started on Feb. 1, 1960, and they don’t have a clue about the impact. I think that would be a tragedy.”
Alexis Davis is a senior multimedia journal journalism student from Prince George’s County, Md. She is a sports and culture contributor for The A&T Register, the campus newspaper at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.