Chicago's Forgotten Role in the Lunch Counter Sit-In Movement

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The Jack Spratt Coffee House in 1941. Photo: courtesy Chicago History Museum

In the 1960s Chicago restaurants such as Edna's, Army & Lou's and Argia B's BBQ played an important role in the civil rights movement by providing meeting places and material support for Martin Luther King's housing protests in the city during that decade. But the Chicago History Museum has put up a page calling attention to a largely forgotten chapter in the history of civil rights in Chicago from two decades earlier, which also involved a restaurant— a sit-in at a Chicago lunch counter that predated the famous ones at Woolworths in Mississippi by 17 years, and helped launch one of the major civil rights groups.

The year was 1943. Members of the University of Chicago community, black and white, who were inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi founded the Committee (later Congress) of Racial Equality, or CORE. After one meeting they went to a nearby coffeeshop, Jack Spratt Coffee House at the corner of 47th and Kimbark, to continue their discussions. But when they got there they found themselves right in the middle of the kind of situation they were founded to oppose: the coffeeshop's staff initially refused to serve the black members of the group.

In May 1943 the group decided to use that encounter as the start of a protest. One of the founders, James Farmer, described what happened when a racially mixed group entered the restaurant:

We went in with a group of about twenty—this was a small place that seats thirty or thirty-five comfortably at the counter and in the booths—and occupied just about all of the available seats and waited for service. The woman was in charge again [the manager they had encountered on a previous visit]. She ordered the waitress to serve two whites who were seated at the counter, and she served them. Then she told the blacks, ‘I'm sorry, we can't serve you, you'll have to leave.’ And they, of course, declined to leave and continued to sit there. By this time the other customers who were in there were aware of what was going on and were watching, and most of these were university people, University of Chicago, who were more or less sympathetic with us. And they stopped eating and the two people at the counter she had served and those whites in the booth she had served were not eating. There was no turnover. People were coming in and standing around for a few minutes and walking out. There were no seats available.

The Jack Spratt management called the police, but CORE advisors had alerted local police to the impending protest and the police declined to intervene. Eventually the restaurant gave in, and was effectively integrated from that point on.

CORE followed this with a similar protest at the White City Roller Skating Rink nearby, while the technique caught on elsewhere, such as Washington, D.C. Although the focus of sit-ins would shift down south in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the techniques pioneered at Jack Spratt would become an important part of the Freedom Rides (which Farmer helped organize) and influence the nonviolent, civil disobedience orientation of the movement. Sadly, nothing remains of this early landmark in civil rights history; the site is now a parking lot.