This Art Deco commercial building in downtown Charleston was built as a department store for the S.H. Kress retail chain in 1931. The department stores, known as “five-and-dime” retailers, operated across the United States from 1896 through the 1980s. This particular location was the site of a Civil Rights demonstration on April 1, 1960, when 24 African-American students from nearby Burke High School conducted a one-day sit-in at the store’s then-segregated lunch counter.
The act of civil disobedience in protest of segregated public facilities was organized by the teenaged students and then-branch president of the NAACP, J. Arthur Brown. The demonstration was unusual in that it was initiated and planned by high school students; most young demonstrators were college students. However, at the time the two local colleges – The Citadel and the College of Charleston – were still segregated, making the Burke High School students the only African-American students in the area old enough to arrange a protest.
The students planned in secrecy for six months to avoid bringing retribution to their families; many participants feared their parents would lose their jobs if the protest was revealed prior to the planned day. The organizers also believed their plan would be more effective if the sit-in was unexpected by the store and the public. Youth leaders from other activist groups helped oversee the demonstration, including James Gilbert Blake, who had been trained in nonviolent protesting and later would serve as the pastor of local Morris Brown AME Church. Another well-known participant was Harvey Gantt, who in 1963 became the first African-American student admitted to Clemson University. Gantt earned a degree in architecture from Clemson, followed by a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He practiced in his Charlotte, North Carolina, firm before becoming the city’s first black mayor, serving from 1983 until 1987. At the time of the Charleston Kress sit-in, Gantt was 17 years old.
Though the students anticipated violent reactions from white onlookers and Kress staff, the day was relatively calm compared to similar demonstrations in other cities. The students dressed professionally and sat at the Kress lunch counter on a Friday designated as a teacher work day so as not to miss school. It was important to the students that they be taken seriously and avoid accusations of skipping school or breaking laws other than sitting at the lunch counter, according to demonstrator Minerva Brown King (daughter of J. Arthur Brown).
The students, seated in a long line, held hands. They occasionally hummed or quietly said a prayer, but mostly they remained silent. Though they received no service and were asked to leave – and though store employees removed stools at the lunch counter to discourage others from joining in – no one was physically harmed. However, the store was cleared of customers at 4:45 that afternoon, six hours after the protest began, and Charleston police arrested 16 boys and eight girls on trespassing charges.
Brown posted bailed for the students, who later were represented by Matthew Perry, a prominent Civil Rights attorney. Perry was instrumental in Gantt’s acceptance to Clemson University and would go on to become a United States federal judge. The charges against the students were dropped, and similar demonstrations continued in the Charleston business district until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Today the Kress building serves as a reminder of the indignities of segregation and the courage of the young students who fought an unjust system.
Many types of businesses have been housed in the King Street building since the closure of the Kress department store, including law offices and its current occupant, a clothing store.