If you visit the Smithsonian Institute, one of the exhibits you might see is a lunch counter that’s been carefully relocated from a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina to Washington D.C. History says that the counter was the site of the first anti-segregation sit-in in the Deep South and that the event, one of the precursors to the Civil Rights movement in this country, occurred on February 1st, 1960.
It’s a riveting display – powerful, emotional and undeniably patriotic. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong. The first sit-ins in the South took place five and dime stores Grant’s and McCrory’s on April 29, 1959. In Miami.
How do I know? Because these first sit-ins were planned and organized by my parents and their friends.
Leonard and Annsheila Turkel moved to Miami from New York in 1956. Len had been stationed in Miami when he served in the Air Force and fell in love with the tropical city. Upon returning to New York, he fell in love with Annsheila Tronick and after their wedding the couple decided to start their life together in the sunshine.
Living in the South, and out of the controlled environment of the armed services, it was clear that some things weren’t quite right. Miami in the mid-fifties was a segregated Jim Crow city. Black residents were mainly restricted to three neighborhoods – Overtown, the West Grove, and the ironically named Liberty City. Besides being forced to ride in the backs of city buses, black workers weren’t allowed on Miami Beach after dark. Black shoppers couldn’t try on clothes in Burdines department store. And black diners couldn’t sit at downtown Miami lunch counters.
Even though they were raising small children and running a start-up business, my parents threw themselves into the civil rights movement. My white father and his black colleague, Dr. John Brown, would test segregation policies by sitting at downtown lunch counters only to be thrown out when they requested service. And my dad’s friend, lawyer Howard Dixon, would drive to small northern Florida towns with names like Frostproof and Loxahatchee to bail out jailed freedom marchers. When I asked my dad how such young guys were brave enough to oppose the establishment in such a violent time, he shrugged and said, “I think we were too dumb to be scared.”
One night my dad drove his truck off a dark country lane and into the three-foot deep culvert that ran alongside the road. The farmer my dad flagged down for a tow climbed down off his tractor, tilted the brim of his hat back to glare at the kid standing in front of his stranded truck and drawled, “Son, you’re either stupid or a Yankee.”
“I believe I’m both, sir,” my dad answered.
While Leonard was busy, my mom wasn’t only changing diapers and reading bedtime stories; she was organizing marches, recruiting volunteers and training protesters. After a few years of this, my parents decided that the best way to promote their cause and promote equality for all of Miami’s citizens was to stage sit-ins at the restricted lunch counters in downtown Miami.
Luckily for posterity, the local TV news covered the event and other protests my parents organized and participated in. After extensive research in the county archives, my sister Amy was able to locate the original news footage. Amy even found a news interview with Dr. Brown, the African-American man who was brave enough to sit at the segregated lunch counter and order food. With the generous help of Bob Berkowitz from Multivision, my brother Douglas, my sister, and I put together a short tribute video to my parents’ courageous higher calling. We posted it on the Internet and I hope you’ll watch it.
My parents, who live on Miami Beach, remain active to this day. Some of their accomplishments include building the Anne Marie Adker Community Health Center in Overtown, rehabbing low-income housing at Town Park Village, creating the Instant Vision Program in Miami elementary schools and restoring Miami’s first black library.
So the next time you’re touring the Smithsonian, remember that as important, emotional, and moving as the Greensboro display is, that protest was not the first. It was preceded by sit-ins that occurred almost a year before in Miami, planned and attended by Annsheila and Leonard Turkel. My mom and dad.