For decades students at North Carolina A&T University were credited with beginning the student sit-in movement again Jim Crow when they demanded to be served at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. Now, that piece of Black history needs to be amended given new evidence that the first student sit-ins began years earlier in Baltimore when Morgan State College (now University) students demanded to be served at a Read’s Drug Store in the city’s downtown. The incident was one of several protests that Morgan students initiated in the 1950’s. It is an important correction to the historical record that does not diminish the courage of the A&T students but gives credit where credit is due, and places Morgan State, a school with a rich civil rights history, in its proper historical place. In fact, as early as 1947, students at Morgan State College had demonstrated in Annapolis, the Maryland state capital, demanding equal funding for their college.
Since it has been characterized as a “border state,” Maryland is often forgotten as part of the South. The struggle for equal rights in states further down the eastern seaboard often overshadows similar battles that took place long the Chesapeake. Maryland was indeed a haven for Jim Crow and segregation was embedded in the fabric of the state and city of Baltimore. As one of the state’s historically Black colleges, first as a private institution and then under state control, Morgan State was the epicenter of the Black intelligentsia and the training ground for a generation of Black leadership. Among others the college produced the state’s first African-American member of Congress and the current chief justice of the state’s highest court. The college has a tradition of leadership and its students thrust themselves with great fervor into the cause for social justice.
In 1953, Morgan students began their protests at the downtown Read’s store. By 1955, five years before the Greensboro sit-ins, the Baltimore protests forced Read’s Drug Store to desegregate all 37 of its stores in the city of Baltimore. Morgan students then turned their attention to businesses close to the college’s northeast Baltimore campus. In 1959 the students targeted an Arundel ice cream store with a week-long sit-in and soon the chain would desegregate all of its stores. These actions were the first of many by Morgan State students during the civil rights era. The story of the courage of the students is now on display on the Morgan State campus in the university’s museum. In 2011 a special convocation was held at the university to formally recognize and honor the Morgan State students involved in the sit-ins and protests from 1947-1963.