"It's Been Quite A Show Tonight, Hasn't It?"
In the late 1940s, African-American students at the University of Kansas found themselves in something of a Twilight Zone. On campus, they existed in an environment that – officially, at least – was completely colorblind. They mingled with white students in integrated classrooms, could live in integrated dormitories, and were served in the Kansas Union’s cafeteria without a second thought.
But just a few steps off campus, African-Americans entered a world where prejudice reigned and service was denied. This situation was annoying and outrageous at any time of the day, but it became even more problematic after 7 p.m., when the Union’s dining facilities closed and black students had to travel 14 blocks to find a café that would serve them dinner.
The Lawrence chapter of the Committee on Racial Equality (known as CORE and renamed the Congress on Racial Equality in 1950), found this state of affairs intolerable. In November of 1947, when the group was in its second year of existence, CORE Chairman Robert Stewart initiated a survey of Lawrence-area cafes and nightclubs and determined that 15 of them, as a policy, did not serve “Negroes.” (The term “Negroes” was the standard usage of the period by all races).
These establishments usually displayed a sign, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” although one read “Colored trade served in sacks only.” CORE’s survey received some publicity both in the University Daily Kansan and through the grapevine, but Lawrence businessman and Merchant’s Bureau Chairman Ralph Campbell said that no action would be taken until the Kansas legislature dealt with the issue.
CORE followed up on these findings in February 1948, when it interviewed owners and managers of the four cafes serving the KU neighborhood regarding their racial policies. Merle Cline, co-manager of the Cottage Café, stated that his lease prevented him from serving anyone “of African descent.” Ivan Rowe, manager of the Rock Chalk Café, said that allowing mixed races “just isn’t being done in Lawrence or . . . in this section of the country.” Carl Clifton, manager of the Jayhawk Café on Ohio Street indicated he would not back down from his policy of refusing service to Negroes. And W.E. Murphy, owner of Brick’s Café (located just north of the Kansas Union where the top of the parking garage is today), went on record saying he would not serve CORE members of any color. This likely led to his restaurant being selected as the sight of the April sit-in
On April 15 beginning at 4 p.m., white CORE members and their supporters, about 11 women and 20 men, slowly began filling the seats of Brick’s Café. Around 4:45, mixed-race groups entered and sat at the booths with the white CORE members. A female CORE member took up a position by the front door and began handing out handbills explaining the group’s actions. Reporters from the University Daily Kansan were in the café most of the time, although owner Murphy escorted a Kansan photographer out of the restaurant. Murphy asked CORE chairman Robert Stewart if he was there to negotiate, which Stewart had tried to do on several occasions, and he replied, “Yes, if you wish.” Murphy responded that he did not wish to and that Stewart should understand that he and his party would not be served.
By 6:00, about 15 or 20 white males (termed “huskies” in CORE’s report of the incident), were standing around inside the café, obviously there to provide the owner with some assistance. Witnesses recognized several of them as being on the football team. At about 7:15 the “huskies” gathered into a huddle with the owner, after which they approached an African-American in the back booth. This individual had been a former CORE chairman, and was an ex-G.I. who had served overseas. The “huskies” told him he was trespassing and that he had to leave. When the man refused, he was dragged out of the booth and onto the floor. He then got up and sat back down in the booth. At this, a couple of the “huskies” began to badger the man about being “yellow,” for not fighting them. The man replied at some length about the group’s reasons for being in the café, that they were not interested in doing harm to anyone but were there only to make a point. The huskies then moved to the next booth where the CORE Chairman Stewart was seated.
At this point in the proceedings, the Lawrence police arrived. After a brief discussion over what, if any, charges could be brought, one of the policemen stated that as far as he was concerned, the football players and their friends could throw the CORE members out of the restaurant. And with that, the “huskies” proceeded to physically carry the protestors out the front door and drop them on the steps. The non-violent nature of the protest kept the situation from escalating, although at least one minor injury was reported when one of the demonstrators was pushed down the front entrance stairs. “It’s been quite a show tonight hasn’t it?” said a female CORE sympathizer as she paid her bill.
Quite a night indeed, and it was just the beginning. The Brick’s Café sit-in was hardly the end of CORE’s efforts to integrate the KU-area restaurants. In 1949, CORE came up with a tactic to counter the café owners’ mantra that integration would hurt their business. Helped by the Lawrence League for the Protection of Democracy, the All Student Council, the Ministerial Alliance, and the American Federation of Teachers, CORE began selling “meal tickets” for $1.00. All proceeds would be used to pay the owners in cash to integrate their establishments. If the owners refused, all those with a meal ticket would be reimbursed.
On May 2, 1950, five restaurant owners were offered $500 if they would agree to begin serving African-Americans. All five proprietors in the former free-state stronghold refused. The meal ticket money was refunded. Fundamental change in Lawrence’s racial policies still had a long way to go.
Department of History
University of Kansas