TALLAHASSEE — Although in 1950, the law would not allow them to sit at a dime store lunch counter to enjoy a burger and fries, several black students from what was then Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Florida A&M University) sat down, anyway.
When they were arrested and carted off to jail, instead of gaining their freedom by being allowed to post bail, the group determined that remaining behind bars would make a more powerful statement. So, they endured what they called “frightening” conditions for up to 49 days in an effort to gain the same rights afforded their white peers.
To commemorate the courageous acts of the eight college and one high school student, FAMU is hosting “Revisiting the Battlefield: A Special Civil Rights Exhibit Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the first “Sit-in” and “Jail-in” student protests on Friday, Feb. 19.
The eight college students, sisters Patricia Stephens-Due and Priscilla Stephens-Kruize; siblings Barbara and John Broxton; William Larkins, Angela Nance, Clement Carney and Merrit Spaulding, were joined by one high school student, Henry Steele, for the protest that was organized by the Stephens sisters.
Stephens-Kruize said that Nance, Carney and Spaulding were released after being jailed for two weeks; and that the Stephens sisters, the Broxtons and Larkins, ended up serving 49 days.
Stephens-Kruize has chronicled her experience in a diary that she plans to self-publish for the commemoration.
“It was very frightening…there were inmates in there, put in there to intimidate us,” she recalled in a telephone interview. She said the experience was so stressful, the fear so palpable, that her body temporarily shut down, leaving her “paralyzed for a short period.”
Her sister, Patricia Stephens-Due, co-authored the 2003 book, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, with her daughter, famed author and former Miami Herald reporter Tananarive Due.
Stephens-Due will not be able to attend the anniversary event because of a serious illness, but Tananarive said that her mother has filmed comments to be shared at the commemoration.
During a telephone interview from her home in California, Tananarive told the South Florida Times that writing the book with her mother was something she knew she had to do.
“My mother never really felt that Tallahassee’s story was fully told…she’s like the family griot,” the award-winning novelist said of her mother’s penchant for storytelling.
Unlike some events that are deemed extraordinary in retrospect, Tananarive said she and her mother knew that they had something special as they were writing the book. She chuckled as she recalled her attempts at creative license that her mother shot down because she (Tananarive) wasn’t there during the struggle.
She said the process was an extremely emotional one, especially for her mother, who had to relive much of the pain associated with the experience. Tananarive said she will not be attending the event, but that her sister, Johnita Due, will attend.
The exhibit will accompany a live depiction of the protests.
About 40 students currently enrolled at FAMU, Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College will perform the “Jail, not Bail” re-enactment, Murel Dawson told the South Florida Times.
Dawson is the curator at the Meek-Eaton Black Archives Center in Tallahassee. She said the event will include “a lunch counter demonstration, they’ll go to jail in another scene, and then there will be a mass march and demonstration.”
FAMU journalism professor Yanela Gordon wrote the script for the re-enactment. The entire campus has been invited to get in on the historical action “by dressing in clothing from the 1950s and 60s,” Dawson said.
The exhibit will include replicas of photos and documents from Stephens-Due’s personal collection, as well as arrest records, news clippings, clothing and other artifacts from the civil rights era.