Out of the history books, into the heart

  • Published
  • By Monica Mendoza
  • 21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
Tech. Sgt. Monique Killian must have passed in front of the F.W. Woolworth Co. store in Greensboro, N.C., dozens, if not hundreds of times, when she was a kid.

She knew the location was significant in African American history. She had even heard family lore that "Mom was arrested for picketing or sitting," said Sergeant Killian, 21st Space Wing Inspector General flight chief, wing readiness.

Her mom, Ann Staples Shelton, didn't tell many stories of the past. She taught her three girls by example.

Ms. Shelton, a Department of Defense school teacher, had a strong work-ethic, taught with enthusiasm and had a wonderful sense of humor.

This month, Sergeant Killian learned something new about her mom, who passed away six years ago, and the Woolworth store, which she had passed by so many times, jumped from the history books right into her heart.

Feb. 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when four African Americans - Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain -- sat down at the segregated lunch counter in the Greensboro Woolworth store. The four Agricultural and Technical College students were refused service.

The Woolworth store manager didn't have the four young men arrested that first day. He hoped they would just go away. However, on Feb. 2, the four showed up with 23 men and four women. Sergeant Killian's mom, Ann Staples Shelton, was one of them. She was just 17-years-old and a North Carolina A&T College freshman. It was a non-violent protest and the students would not move, even as naysayers tried to intimidate them.

By Feb. 5, hundreds of students descended on Woolworth to protest segregation and the "Whites Only" lunch counter. The store closed for two weeks and the beginning of the civil rights movement was born. Within eight weeks, an estimated 50,000 people had taken part in sit-ins in Nashville, Atlanta, Miami, Durham, N.C., Little Rock, Ark. and dozens of other cities.

In July 1960, Woolworth's stores desegregated their lunch counters. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed and mandated desegregation in public accommodations.

During anniversary celebrations this month in Greensboro, 16 people were honored as "Unsung Heroes," including Ms. Shelton. From the original leaders of the sit-ins, Sergeant Killian learned her mom was instrumental in the protests that kicked off the civil rights movement. She also learned that her mom was fun and funny and loved by everyone. Hearing the stories about her mom was a gift, she said.

"It's just amazing that my mom had a huge part in this," Sergeant Killian said. "Dr. McCain, who everybody looks at as the leader of the four, walks up to us and said, 'Are you Ann's daughters?' He said, 'If I could have given only one award today, it would have been to your mom and nobody else.' When he said that, I burst into tears."

Sergeant Killian and her sister, Fraun Shelton, received an Unsung Hero Medal on behalf of their mom, who likely would not have wanted to be in the spotlight.

"I have so many liberties and rights now because of what my mom participated in 50 years ago and it absolutely floors me," Sergeant Killian said.

The Smithsonian Institution called the sit-ins "one of the most significant protests of the civil rights movement." In 1993, when the Greensboro Woolworth store closed, an eight-foot section of the lunch counter was moved to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. To mark the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum opened next to the Greensboro Woolworth store, where the dining room and most of the original counter is still intact. On Jan. 30, one of the Greensboro four, Dr. McCain, told the Associated Press, "The best feeling of my life was sitting on that dumb stool."

This month, when Sergeant Killian returned to Elm Street in Greensboro, the Woolworth store had new meaning to her. It was the site where college students staged a protest that changed how she lives her life, she said.

"I had butterflies in my stomach seeing the Woolworth store this time," Sergeant Killian said. "I stopped traffic and I was taking pictures. My mom was here."