Civil rights exhibit opens at Sweet Briar

A new exhibition at Sweet Briar will spotlight the College’s involvement with civil rights. “Simply Justice and Fair Play: Civil Rights at Sweet Briar 1960-1964”opens March 1 at the Sweet Briar Museum and is on view through June 5.

The show, says galleries and museum director Karol Lawson, focuses on the picketing of Patterson’s Drug Store in downtown Lynchburg on Feb. 14, 1961. On that day, nine Sweet Briar College students staged a public demonstration at the store to protest racial segregation at its lunch counter.

Letter to the editor
Many at Sweet Briar signed this letter to the editor sent in 1960, right before protests began.

“This was a follow-up to a sit-in type protest in December 1960 — no SBC students were present at that but they had helped plan it — and took place while the sit-in students were in the Lynchburg jail on trespassing charges, following their trial in January 1961,” Lawson explains.

Seven Sweet Briar students picketed on the sidewalk outside; two went inside the store to talk to the owner. Lawson notes that the Sweet Briar students were not alone, but joined with peers from other Lynchburg area colleges and African-American activists from Lynchburg, among them area high school students. It also was not the only time Patterson’s was picketed that winter — but it was a big deal for Sweet Briar.

“President Pannell counseled the students to remember that, though they were expressing private viewpoints, their actions reflected on the school as a whole,” Lawson says. “She made sure their parents were aware of their activities, and most of the parents expressed satisfaction that their daughters were standing up for what they thought was right. She did not, however, expel them or punish them otherwise.”

About a week later, 74 Sweet Briar students signed a letter to the owner of Patterson’s Drug Store informing him that they would boycott his store. Sweet Briar professors followed up with letters to the editor in the Lynchburg newspapers.

“Through that spring, professors held discussions on campus about integration and the College’s charter and several participated in a weekly TV talk show in Lynchburg that the city had convened to discuss what they termed ‘human relations’ in the community,” Lawson says.

“This is a little-known chapter in the story of Sweet Briar’s engagement with civil rights. The court case is higher profile, but it is essential to realize that the hard work was preceded by the efforts of many students and professors.”

The museum exhibit will tell this story largely through archival documentation borrowed from Mary Helen Cochran Library, as Lawson’s own research “failed to turn up any photos of the event,” she says ruefully.

“President Pannell successfully squashed the local newspaper’s investigation, and no one involved seems to have kept any placards or other memorabilia.”

In addition, she is borrowing a few of Patterson’s Drug Store items from the Lynchburg Museum, and a graphic timeline on the gallery walls will help visitors follow the unfolding story and compare it to regional and national civil rights milestones.

Museum hours are 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The gallery closes when the College is not in session; it is recommended that visitors call ahead to confirm hours. For more information, contact Karol Lawson at (434) 381-6248 or klawson@sbc.edu.