300 Oretha Castle Haley (copy)

While a student at Southern University in New Orleans in 1960, Oretha Castle (better known today as Oretha Castle Haley) was among a small group that staged a sit-in at a McCrory's store to protest segregation. 

Hey Blake,

I recently visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, where they mention sit-ins at lunch counters during the 1960s. I know there were sit-ins at lunch counters here. Where were they?

Dear reader,

The sit-ins — nonviolent demonstrations designed to protest segregated lunch counters in department and dime stores — were a hallmark of the early civil rights movement. While there had been sit-ins as far back as the 1940s, most historians agree the February 1960 sit-ins at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina were catalysts for the movement.

The first recorded sit-in at a New Orleans lunch counter was Sept. 9, 1960, when seven young people (five African-Americans and two whites) were arrested at the Woolworth’s at Canal and North Rampart streets. They were members of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, which had organized sit-ins in other cities.

“The seven demonstrators took adjacent seats in the middle of a long lunch counter,” reported The Times-Picayune. “They asked for soft drinks and were refused service. Without complaining, they just sat there chatting with each other.” They stayed there for nearly five hours before being arrested and booked with criminal mischief. They included Jerome Smith, later a Freedom Rider and well-known activist.

A week later, on Sept. 17, 1960, a group staged another sit-in at the McCrory’s store at 1005 Canal St. They were Sydney “Lanny” Goldfinch, a white Tulane University student, and three African-Americans: Rudy Lombard, a student at Xavier University, Dillard University student Cecil Carter Jr. and Oretha Castle (later Oretha Castle Haley), who was enrolled at Southern University at New Orleans. The students were arrested but appealed their convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the arrests. The case, Lombard v. Louisiana, was one of several that became precedent for striking down segregation laws.

There were other sit-ins at the Canal Street Woolworth’s and Waterbury’s on Dryades Street, though they did not lead to arrests. Within two years, stores in the city mostly had integrated, ending the need for sit-ins.

The former Woolworth building on Canal Street was demolished and is being replaced by a Hard Rock Hotel. A Ruby Slipper Cafe now occupies the building where McCrory’s once stood.