Photo: Charles Bess still lives in Greensboro and regularly visits the International Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Correction (Feb. 12,2020): The original version of this piece wrote that the photo with Bess was taken on the first day of the sit-ins. The photo was actually taken on the second day of the sit-ins with two of the original members of the A&T depicted along with Bess behind the counter.
Charles Bess lives on the cusp of celebrity.
Spritely, even at the age of 82, with two tufts of bright, white hair that he likes to fluff and shape gently with his hands every now and again, Bess walks swiftly through the crowded lobby at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in downtown Greensboro on a recent Saturday.
It’s the 60th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, and the museum is packed. A few employees glance up from the ticket desk to smile warmly and welcome Bess into the building as they hurriedly check a long line of college students out at the counter. Other than that, Bess goes largely unnoticed by the dozens of people who fill the space.
As he makes his way past the crowd, Bess pulls out his new cell phone (he lost his old one about a week ago) and pulls up a black-and-white image. It’s a familiar one, especially today. Four young black men sit at a lunch counter and glance back over their shoulders at the cameraman. Three look directly into the lens. The fourth, the closest to the viewer, either ignores the shooter or has missed the invitation.
Much has been written about the four men who sat defiantly on Feb. 1, 1960 at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro all those years ago. But on the other side of the counter stands one other figure — another young black man, this one in a white paper hat and a busboy uniform. His eyes are downcast, as if he, too, missed the cameraman’s cue — or more than likely, looked deliberately away, not wanting to get too caught up in the moment. (Updated Feb. 12, 2020): The photo of Bess behind the counter was taken on Feb. 2, 1960 on the second day of the sit-ins with two of the original members of the sit-ins.
“That’s me!” Bess exclaims as he points to the man behind the counter. He laughs and emits a high-pitched giggle, one that resounds through the space and somehow makes Bess seem both aged and youthful at the same time.
Bess was 23 years old when he began working at Woolworth in Greensboro. He had come to the city in 1957 from Kings Mountain, about 130 miles away, to live with his sister, Virginia. It wasn’t long before he got a job at Woolworth, first as a dishwasher.
“It was hard work,” Bess recalls. “I would take the dishes off the elevator and put them in a tray and send the tray through the machine — the dishwasher. And then it would come out on the other side and I would leave the dishes in the tray and they would dry. Then I would stack the dishes up and put them on the little elevator and send them down to the lunch counter.”
Upstairs in the dish room he worked with just one other employee — a black woman. They were in charge of cleaning and rotating dishes throughout the day to keep up with demand.
“All the ones working up in the kitchen was blacks,” Bess says.
The waitresses were all white. The counter manager, whom Bess knew as Mrs. Holt, was also a white woman.
“Woolworth was kind of a hard place to work because sometimes the manager would get on you a lot, but she didn’t bother me too much because I did my job,” Bess says proudly.
About a year later, in 1958, Bess was promoted to busboy. The previous busboy had quit to attend college in Charlotte and by then, Bess had won the approval of Mrs. Holt and been deemed worthy of working in front of the white customers. Downstairs, he was in charge of sending dishes up to the dishwashers and making sure the waitresses had the plates they needed. He also served cakes and pies if needed.
It wasn’t a glamorous job, but Bess took pride in it.
“If you were going to be a busboy at Woolworth at that time, you had to be fast,” Bess says. “Oh yeah, I was fast. I think that’s why Mrs. Holt kept me there, cause she saw that I could keep up.”
FEB. 1, 1960
Bess was working as a busboy on the day that Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond walked into the store. He says that before making their way to the counter, the young men bought some school supplies. Bess says he had seen other black people try to sit at the counter before the A&T Four, but none had attempted to stay after being asked to leave. After doing just that, the men kept calmly asking the waitresses for a cup of coffee any time one of them passed by.
“I remember it was kind of a cold day,” Bess says. “I guess that’s why they wanted the coffee.”
He remembers how one of them asked why he couldn’t be served if his money was just as good as anyone else’s. After being ignored by the waitresses, they stayed for about an hour until closing time.
“Here’s the thing,” Bess says. “They didn’t move. Nobody could understand that. They were just teenagers. It really took the younger guys to get it to boost off because at the time, the older people were afraid to do that. The older folks were set in their own ways. These four guys, they were not hungry for just food, they were hungry for a change.”
He was so surprised by their actions that he stopped working for a while and just watched the four students as they protested.
“I really wanted to see what was going to happen,” Bess says. “I was looking at ’em. I didn’t say nothing to them.”
And while the now-famous photograph from the second day of the sit-ins shows Bess as reserved and a bit distant, Bess says internally, he was ecstatic.
“I was excited about it,” Bess says. “I was really excited to see it happen. I felt like whites and blacks and any other race should be able to sit down and eat together.”
After his shift once the four had gone and he had finished his closing duties, Bess caught a cab home and remembers telling the driver all about the young men who came into the store that day. As soon as he got home, he told his sister, and then his brother-in-law.
“I felt like I wanted to tell everybody,” he says as he waves his arms up and down. “I was excited about it. It was a very exciting week.”
Bess says that working for a company that kept whites and black separated — not only behind the scenes, but publicly — felt complicated at times.
“I did have to wrestle with it,” he says. “I was on the other side, being paid by a company that was keeping me going, but all the same time, I was kind of on their side. I was on this side, but I was rejoiced by the people on the other side. I felt like there needed to be a change.”
Bess says he experienced segregation in his hometown of Kings Mountain as a child. Segregated water fountains, movie theaters, restrooms and more dot his memories. And yet, he says, he didn’t think it was all that strange at the time because that’s just how it was.
“It didn’t bother me too much because my parents and people older than me was going along with that and I felt like that was the way to go,” Bess admits. “That’s what it was like for years. We were set in our own way. We had gotten comfortable in our own way. Like we go in this bathroom and the whites go in that bathroom.”
It wasn’t until he saw the A&T Four before him that it dawned on him that things could be different, Bess says.
“I just felt like that a change had to come when these four guys were sitting there,” he says.
JULY 25, 1960
A few months after the sit-ins on July 25, 1960, the Woolworth counter in Greensboro was quietly desegregated.
Bess and three of his coworkers had been told by Mrs. Holt and upper management the day before that they would eat at the lunch counter the next day.
“She came to me and said, ‘Charles said we are going to start serving colored folks here, but I want my employees to be the first ones to sit down and eat first,’” Bess says. “I had a good feeling about it. I knew that things were gonna change.”
Holt asked Bess and his coworkers to change out of their work clothes and into the regular outfits and sit at the counter in the middle of their shift. Bess says he wore some jeans and his “regular old clothes” and sat down to eat Woolworth’s signature meatloaf.
“I love meatloaf,” Bess says. “I also had some green beans, maybe a potato salad with it.”
It took a total of about 10 minutes.
Then, they just went back to work.
“After that, that’s when other blacks started sitting at the counter,” Bess says. “I didn’t realize that it would be a big deal. I didn’t realize that I would be talking to you about it 60 years later.”
In 1961, Bess left Woolworth to go work at Odell Mill Supply Co.
He had just gotten married and was looking to make more money. In the years that followed, Bess says that Mrs. Holt reached out to him to ask if he could cover some shifts here and there, but he never went back as a customer.
“It just didn’t cross my mind to go back,” he says.
It wasn’t until decades later that Bess reconnected with Woolworth and his time there. He had been invited to the 20th anniversary, which he says took place at a motel downtown. There, he read a poem that he had written about the sit-ins. During the anniversary, the A&T Four also reunited and sat once more at the historic counter at Woolworth, which is now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The rest of the counter is on permanent display at the civil rights museum in Greensboro.
Bess says that of the four, he became closest with David Richmond because he had remained in Greensboro.
Richmond passed away at the age of 49 in 1990. McCain passed away in 2014 at the age of 73. Blair Jr. and McNeil are still alive today.
Bess says that Richmond told him that he was scared the day of the sit-ins.
“At the time he was getting ready to sit, he said that he was getting kind of scared,” Bess says. “He was the last person to sit. He really didn’t know what was gonna happen.”
Today Bess lives just a few miles up the road from the museum and says he “drops in” every couple of months. Most of the employees know him by name, and sometimes he gives his firsthand account during public tours.
On Saturday, a trio of college women from Chicago approach Bess and ask for a picture. Bess excitedly accepts, but not before fluffing his hair just so. Later, he struts behind the counters, the same ones he once worked behind 60 years ago. He finds what looks like an original metal bus bin, the kind he used every day.
“I’m excited to see that it’s still here,” Bess says. “I would never forget Woolworth, the hard work I put in here, the good friends I made. I didn’t have a big position at Woolworth like cooking or baking cakes. I was just a plain busboy working with dirty dishes all day, but I praise God that I can still be here talking about Woolworth.”