Less than a year from now — if all goes as planned — Wichita will pay tribute to the once-young students who led the nation’s first successful lunch counter sit-in.
The 60th anniversary of the Dockum Drugstore sit-in will be next July. And at that anniversary, a new memorial will be unveiled. There are still hurdles to clear. The design has yet to be presented to the Wichita Design Council and the Wichita City Council for final approval.
But on Saturday night, the memorial design was unveiled at the Kansas African American Museum’s Trailblazers Gala.
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The design fits all the criteria organizers of the memorial have requested, said Mark McCormick, director of the Kansas African American Museum.
It had to first and foremost honor Ron Walters.
In the summer of 1958, Ron, then 20 and a freshman at Wichita University, organized a sit-in at Dockum Drug Store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Douglas.
Like many Kansas stores at that time, Dockum had an unwritten policy at the lunch counter: no seated service for black people.
Ron Walters, then president of the local youth chapter of the NAACP, wanted to change that. The students’ nonviolent effort resulted in the lunch counter at Dockum and eventually in other Rexall stores across the state providing seated service for black patrons.
The sit-in that Walters organized sparked a similar demonstration in Oklahoma City in 1959 and several others before the well-known Greensboro, N.C., sit-in took place in 1960.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walters was instrumental in helping develop the framework for the Congressional Black Caucus, which formed in 1969. The Wichitan was a public affairs commentator on national news shows and authored seven books and more than 100 newspaper and magazine articles.
He had also been a professor and chair of the political science department at Howard University, assistant professor and chair of Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, and assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University.
“The participants in the sit-in, when we were asking what the memorial should be, the first thing they said was that it should honor Ron Walters,” McCormick said. “This is a man who spoke to the French senate about human rights, to Nelson Mandela about progressing beyond apartheid and if you add that to he organized the first student led sit-in at a time when it was considered too provocative for kids, it is hard to overstate the importance of the sit-in or Ron’s importance to the movement.”
Walters died in 2010.
The Kansas Health Foundation has pledged $50,000 to create the memorial.
The memorial also had to tell the story of how young African Americans chose to protest unfair restaurant practices. It had to offer context about what it was like for African Americans to shop in downtown Wichita during the 1950s and include the only photo of the sit-in as part of the memorial.
Steve Coen, director of the Kansas Health Foundation, told participants in Saturday night’s gala why his organization chose to help with the memorial.
“A few years ago, the Kansas Health Foundation decided to refocus its funding efforts by giving more attention to funding programs that affect the health of underserved and at-risk populations in our state,” Coen said. “That is part of what led us to provide the grant for the Dockum Sit-in memorial.
“At times, standing up for change can seem very daunting, particularly when there are powerful voices on the other side.”
The artists are Kansans Carson Norton, a bronze sculptor from Great Bend, and Ellamonique Baccus, a Wichita art therapist who specializes in community engagement and telling stories through artwork. The artwork is a mix of bronze and a window that looks into the past and ueses bullet-proof glass.
“It will have lots of squares of glass with the images of people who participated in the movement,” McCormick said. “You will see the whole picture and then, up close, you see all the little people who made it possible. I think it was a stroke of genius we have this piece that is full of symbolism.
“And, one of the last things we asked is that it be vandalism proof.”
Organizers hope the memorial will stand at the old site of the Dockum Rexall Drugstore, on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway, where the Ambassador Hotel stands today.
Although there is a drugstore counter sculpture in downtown Wichita, the artwork does not include a plaque or information about the historic sit-in of 1958.
“Those of us who know about about the Dockum sit-in know it must have some sort of tie-in but it is not explicit,” McCormick said. “That counter sits in a garden of other bronze artwork. If you have no connection to the other, you’d never know.”
The memorial design at Douglas and Broadway will hold a variety of information explaining the significance of the sit-in.
“The Dockum sit-in serves as a great reminder of what can happen when a group of committed citizens have the courage to speak out for what they believe in,” Coen said. “Led by Ron Walters and (his cousin) Carol Parks Hahn, this group was quietly and heroically, making history – with a wide-reaching and long-lasting impact.
“The efforts of this small group of individuals resulted in a striking blow to segregation and racism in our city and state.”
McCormick said he is hopeful the new memorial will attract more visitors to Wichita.
“We have the kind of history here that ought to draw tourism,” McCormick said. “In terms of black history, I don’t think it has not been mined at all. We have the Gordon Park’s collection, Martin Luther King’s lawyer (Donald Hollowell) was from here, Hattie McDaniel was born here, we had a historic baseball game (in 1925) between Wichita’s all-black Monrovians and the local Ku Klux Klan, and the beginning of the Double V Campaign during World War II.
“It is time for us to elevate this history. I believe we can do that through cultural economic development.”