Marcie Cohen Ferris: Civil Rights, Lunch Counters, and North Carolina Basketball

The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region, by Marcie Cohen FerrisWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Ferris presents food as a new way to chronicle the American South’s larger history. Ferris tells a richly illustrated story of southern food and the struggles of whites, blacks, Native Americans, and other people of the region to control the nourishment of their bodies and minds, livelihoods, lands, and citizenship. The experience of food serves as an evocative lens onto colonial settlements and antebellum plantations, New South cities and Civil Rights–era lunch counters, chronic hunger and agricultural reform, counterculture communes and iconic restaurants as Ferris reveals how food—as cuisine and as commodity—has expressed and shaped southern identity to the present day.

In today’s post, Ferris examines the role of food in the story of Charles “Charlie” Scott, the first African American scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and others in the 1960s who sought change in the American South.


Civil Rights, Lunch Counters, and North Carolina Basketball

Many thanks to Coach Terry Holland for his contributions to this essay through the powerful stories he shared on the occasion of his 50th class reunion at Davidson College in June 2014. My husband Bill Ferris is a member of this remarkable Class of ’64, and he and his dear friend Joe Howell participated in the heated civil rights activism in the region that summer.—MCF

The summer of 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Across the South, thousands gathered to commemorate this moment and its impact on American life. (Listen to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s compelling speakers and oral histories and watch Kate Medley’s moving film series, Counter Histories for a taste of the SFA Summer Symposium in Jackson, Mississippi, June 20–21, 2014, which explored this historic era.) In The Edible South, two chapters examine southern food landscapes from the Jim Crow laws of the 1950s to the passage of the historic civil rights legislation in the 1960s, a time when segregated barbecue cafés, bus station restaurants, and dime store lunch counters became battlegrounds during the civil rights movement. White and black southerners, including a young athlete, struggled against racial injustice, such as the indignity experienced at segregated dining venues throughout the South.

In 1966, Charles “Charlie” Scott (b. 1948 in NYC) became the first African American student to attend the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on an athletic scholarship. He decided to attend UNC rather than basketball powerhouse Davidson College after a wrenching moment at a small café in Davidson, North Carolina. Former Davidson College basketball star Terry Holland, who both played and later served as assistant coach under the college’s legendary coach Lefty Driesell, and UNC law professor and civil rights attorney Daniel H. Pollitt, who was a passionate advocate for social justice in Chapel Hill during the 1950s and 1960s, vividly recall Scott’s historic decision. Pollitt worked with Dean Smith, UNC’s beloved basketball coach (1961–1997) and Robert Seymour, progressive minister at the Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, to recruit Charlie Scott and to help integrate the university community.

As a high school senior, Charlie Scott was an outstanding athlete and valedictorian of his class at Laurinburg Institute, a private preparatory academy for black students that was founded in 1904 in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Frank McDuffie, whose parents founded the Institute, was the headmaster and coach who counseled talented student athletes like Scott during their college recruitment process. Scott had committed to Davidson during his junior year. In the spring of 1966, McDuffie, his wife and son, and Charlie Scott stopped by Davidson for an impromptu visit with the coaches. Driesell and Holland had gone to lunch at one of Davidson’s two restaurants, a small lunch counter named The Coffee Cup. A secretary in the basketball program told the McDuffies that the coaches were eating lunch and provided directions to the restaurant. The national signing day for basketball players was about a month away.

Holland recalls that The Coffee Cup . . .

could hardly be called a restaurant. There were two small booths, each seating four customers uncomfortably and four stools at the counter. The food was classic southern ‘country cooking’ and darn good, as evidenced by a constant line of people stretching out the door on the other side of the cooking area, where customers picked up their ‘to go’ orders to take home or back to their business. The owners/employees were a husband and wife team. He cooked and she waited on the customers. Coach Driesell and I had arrived early enough to get a booth that barely accommodated the two of us due to our long legs. We had not ordered, so when Charlie and the McDuffies arrived unexpectedly, Lefty jumped up and ran to the door asking them to come in and have lunch. Meanwhile, I was looking around and wondering where in the world four more people could eat in the already full sitting area.

About that time, the female owner came up and told us that we would all have to “go on the other side if you want to get any food.” I thought she meant there was not enough room for all six of us and that we had to go get “take out” food. However, when we tried to seat our four guests in the booth we had been sitting in while we stood and talked, she came over and made it clear that the McDuffies and Charlie were not allowed to sit on that side of the restaurant. Lefty argued with her, but as the rhetoric escalated, it was obvious that the situation was only going to get worse. We all left, while expressing our concerns that this was happening in Davidson.[1]

This event happened after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and reflects the dramatic challenges to compliance that occurred across the South. Holland notes that Coach Driesell threatened to take legal action against the café, and the owners closed the business rather than face the courts. In an interview with Professor Daniel Pollitt conducted by UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, Pollitt noted, “Charlie decided he didn’t want to go to a town where he couldn’t eat in the restaurants. So he cancelled his letter of intent and no protests were made because how could you defend it, you know? — . . . McDuffie, the headmaster at Laurinburg, called Dean Smith and said that nobody from Laurinburg had ever been admitted at the University of North Carolina and maybe you would like to start the thing off with Charlie Scott.”[2] Dean Smith invited Daniel Pollitt, whom McDuffie had heard speak at a state convention of the NAACP, to join him on a recruiting trip to meet with Scott at Laurinburg. Because of Scott’s interest in studying medicine, the sole black medical student attending UNC at the time also joined them. Pollitt continues: “So then they invited him [Scott] to come up and look at this campus. No pains were left undone.”

Charlie Scott began his freshman year at UNC in the fall of 1966, where, as an exceptional basketball player, he confronted the persistent racism of the era. In spite of its reputation for progressivism—Jesse Helms called UNC the “University of Negroes and Communists”—Chapel Hill remained a small southern town ruled by white conservatives throughout the civil rights struggle, and university administration followed in lockstep.

The progressive threesome of Daniel Pollitt, Dean Smith, and Robert Seymour worked together again in the 1960s to expand a summer school program that provided hot meals to needy children in the community.[3]As head of the local interfaith council in Chapel Hill, Seymour observed that minority children were going to school without breakfast, which diminished their concentration in class.[4] “At 10:00 [A.M.] they would get their milk and cookies or crackers or something,” recalled Pollitt. “But they would come here hungry and that had an adverse impact on their learning. So we thought, ‘Let’s get some surplus food which was cheese and syrup and ham and have some breakfast and try to get OEO [Office of Economic Opportunity] to finance it and everything.’”[5] Pollitt and Smith helped Seymour raise funds to purchase surplus government food and provide both a hot breakfast and lunch for school children during the school year and throughout the summer. Their efforts to increase food access for school children points to significant flaws in federal food programs, including the National School Lunch Program, which grossly underserved the nation’s poor children.

In the years that followed in the long civil rights movement, moments such as these continued to reflect the politics of eating where inequality and disfranchisement prevented all southerners from enjoying the basic rights of American citizenship.

For further reading:

Elizabeth Hull, Black History at UNC: Charles Scott, in “A View to Hugh: Processing the Hugh Morton Photographs and Films,” Feb. 6, 2009.

Richard Lapchick, “Scott and Smith gave new look to Tobacco Road,” ESPN, Feb. 28, 2008.

Marcie Cohen Ferris is associate professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region and Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South.

  1. [1]Terry Holland, email to Marcie C. Ferris, June 9, 2014.
  2. [2]Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, February 15, 1991. Interview L-0064-4. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  3. [3]Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, February 15, 1991, Interview L-0064-7, Southern Oral History Program Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  4. [4]Ibid.
  5. [5]Ibid.