The Dockum Drug Store sit-in of 1958, which helped change the civil rights path of the nation from Wichita’s corner of Douglas and Broadway, will have a memorial in its original building for the first time.
Nearly 58 years ago, young black protesters in Wichita sat at the lunch counter of what was then the Dockum Drug Store – and what’s now Siena Tuscan Steakhouse in the Ambassador Hotel.
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Despite insults and torment – and against the recommendations of the NAACP – Wichita’s polite, well-dressed students persistently took their seats at the counter each day until closing time. After three weeks, the drug store agreed to serve the black students at the counter because the protest was costing the store money. According to Gretchen Eick’s book, “Dissent in Wichita,” the largest drugstore chain in Kansas desegregated not only its Wichita stores but all Rexall Drug stores in Kansas.
The historic event of July 1958 became one of the first successful lunch counter sit-ins in the nation that eventually led to desegregation. Similar sit-ins followed in Oklahoma City, Winfield and Coffeyville, according to Eick’s book.
Two sit-in participants who took their seats at the Dockum Drug Store 58 years ago, Joan Williams and Galyn Vesey, sat about 250 feet away from that lunch counter Thursday at the Kansas Leadership Center.
Two sit-in participants who took their seats at the Dockum Drug Store 58 years ago, Joan Williams and Galyn Vesey, sat about 250 feet away from that lunch counter Thursday at the Kansas Leadership Center, as the Kansas Health Foundation presented a $50,000 grant to the Kansas African American Museum and Ambassador Hotel for the memorial project.
“In the face of threats, in the face of name-calling and hate, they stayed strong,” said Steve Coen, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation.
He recognized the courage and tenacity of those sit-in participants who defied what seemed to be insurmountable odds.
“They were told it was too dangerous, they were told it wouldn’t work, and they were told it wasn’t the time,” Coen said.
They were told it was too dangerous, they were told it wouldn’t work, and they were told it wasn’t the time.
Steve Coen, CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation
A packed room at the leadership center gave standing ovations to sit-in participants who attended Thursday’s announcement.
“This group was quietly, and historically, making us stronger,” Coen said during his announcement of the project. “The result was a striking blow to segregation and racism in our city and state.”
Building’s 90th anniversary
Coen presented the grant at the Kansas Health Foundation Symposium, which largely focused on health inequities and disparities.
He said he and the foundation first talked about funding a Dockum remembrance last fall and said the memorial fits into the foundation’s emphasis on civic engagement and health equity.
“We just thought that really needs to be recognized,” he said about the sit-in. He added: “So many people don’t even know this ever happened in Wichita, much less that it was the first in the nation.”
It’s not yet clear what form the memorial will take, or what it will include, because the organizers are just starting to discuss the project. Coen said he contacted the hotel and museum about two weeks ago.
The organizers started discussing the project about two weeks ago, so it’s not yet clear what form the memorial will take, or what it will include.
But the project will likely include an indoor public exhibit on the second floor of the Ambassador Hotel and possibly an outdoor recognition of the site with a plaque or statue.
Tad Stricker, general manager for Ambassador Hotel Collection, said the hotel has wanted to honor the sit-in inside the hotel since the Ambassador opened in January 2013.
“Now more than ever, we need to be recognizing these types of events,” Stricker said. “… Over time, we can forget about things that happened in history.”
He said Ambassador guests have traveled from around the country to stay at the hotel because of the Dockum sit-in.
May marked the 90th anniversary of the building’s existence.
And on Tuesday, the hotel installed museum-quality prints of photos taken during the building’s construction. The photos were installed in a second-floor room called “the study” – the room Stricker said he imagines will house the Dockum sit-in memorial.
The building, and the Dockum Drug Store, opened in 1926. On Tuesday, the hotel installed museum-quality prints of photos taken during the building’s construction.
The building, and the Dockum Drug Store, opened in 1926.
Stricker said the hotel no longer has the original lunch counter; he thinks it was removed during a building remodel in the 1970s.
Lessons from Dockum
Mark McCormick, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum, said all of society was implicated in the story of segregation.
“While segregation happened to African-Americans, there was a society that set it up,” he said. “We’re all implicated in this story, to some degree, and we all have something to learn from it.”
The remembrance of the Dockum Drug Store sit-in, he said, should “inspire anyone to stand up and make change.”
He said he doesn’t think today’s “loudest voices” in politics represent America’s wider beliefs.
“If more people did stand up, engage more, and risk more, on behalf of their communities, those loud voices wouldn’t be so loud,” he said.
If more people did stand up, engage more, and risk more, on behalf of their communities, those loud voices wouldn’t be so loud.
Mark McCormick, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum
McCormick said he wants the public to help provide ideas for the project and offer input about how to represent the historical moment. He said participants and historians would also work closely with its development.
To offer suggestions and ideas, email McCormick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Offer your ideas
To offer ideas and suggestions for the Dockum Drug Store sit-in memorial, email Mark McCormick, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum, at email@example.com