Black high school students sit-in, desegregate public libraries in Danville, VA, 1960.

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The actual sit-in only lasted one day, but the response continued for months afterward.
2 April
14 September
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Danville, Virginia
Black students called for desegregation of the Danville Public Library System.

Inspired by the February, 1960 launch of the student sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, high school student Chalmers Mebane decided to stage a sit-in in his city of Danville, Virginia. He and his African American friends collaborated with students on the Youth Council for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to plan a sit-in at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s.

A week before the planned lunch counter sit-in, Robert Williams, a member of the Youth Council, convinced the group to shift its focus to Danville Public Library and Ballou Park, two publicly whites-only spaces.

Danville had two public libraries: the Danville Public Library for white patrons and the William Grasty Branch Library for black patrons. The Grasty Branch Library, officially established only in the 1950s, held only 10% of the collection available at the Danville Public Library.

On Saturday, 2 April 1960, 16 students from John M. Langston High School walked into Danville Public Library to check out books. When the library refused service, the students sat at tables on the first floor and did homework assignments until the head librarian closed the library twenty minutes later.

After leaving, the group visited Ballou Park for over an hour before police arrived and threatened arrest for trespassing. The group left at the police orders and no arrests occurred.

Two days later, the city council of Danville voted to restrict library access to those who had a library card. The students tried to sit-in at the library again, but the new policy prevented them from being there without risking arrest. The local chapter of the NAACP helped the students file an injunction against the City of Danville for unequal treatment at the public libraries.

On 14 May, the NAACP won the injunction in the United States District Court, but the city council voted on 19 May to close all library branches before integration could took place at the end of the month.

Over the summer, the city council decided to put the future of the libraries to a city-wide vote. Either the public library system would remain closed, or it would reopen on an integrated basis.

The NAACP and the Committee for Public Libraries spoke in favor of reopening the libraries. The Danville Library Foundation was a strong opponent of library integration, stating that if the public library system closed, the private library system could continue serving white patrons. On 14 June, in a 2 to 1 margin, voters voted in favor of keeping the public libraries closed. However, the vote did not appear representative of the population; in a city of 47 thousand people, less than 20 percent were registered voters due to voting restrictions such as poll taxes.

In August, the NAACP attempted several unsuccessful negotiations with the city council to reopen the libraries. On 14 September 1960, the city council reopened and integrated the libraries, partly because the private library system could not handle all the patrons. However, integration occurred under several conditions. First, both libraries had to remove all tables and chairs. Second, patrons could not search for books on their own, but place requests at the front desk instead. Third, patrons had to pay a $2.50 usage fee ($19.40 adjusted for 2013 inflation) to receive an updated library card. The council explained the measures were part of a 90-day trial period, but it is unclear when the restrictions ended, as they continued for several months.

Research Notes

The students were influenced by the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in earlier that year.

Press, Associated. "Young Negroes Invade Library, Bringing About Early Closing." The Bee [Danville, VA] 02 Apr 1960, A1-A2. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Press, Associated. "Council Limits Use of Main Library and Parks to Head Off Further Negro Demonstrations." The Bee [Danville, VA] 04 Apr 1960, A1-A2. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Press, Associated. "Negroes Seek Court Order on Library." The Bee [Danville, VA] 11 Apr 1960, A1-A2. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Press, Associated. "Council Votes to Close Library at Close of Day Friday." The Bee [Danville, VA] 19 May 1960, A1. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Press, Associated. "Library Group Mails Appeal." The Bee [Danville, VA] 08 Jun 1960, C2. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Press, Associated. "Racial Body is Favored by NAACP." The Bee [Danville, VA] 29 Aug 1960, A1-A2. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Press, Associated. "Library Debate Reaches Climax." The Bee [Danville, VA] 13 Jun 1960, A1-A2. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Press, Associated. "Danville Votes to Shut Down Public Library." The Afro American [Baltimore, MD] 25 Jun 1960, A3. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Jenkins, Ruth. "A Library Where Readers Can't Even Read a Book." The Baltimore Afro American [Baltimore, MD] 04 Oct 1960, A1-A2. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Mebane, Jr., Chalmers. "Students for Change: 1960's Sit-ins." Emerge Magazine. Feb 2012: 22-26. Print.

Edmunds, Emma. "Robert A. Williams: Attorney, Williams, Luck & Williams: Martinsville, Virginia." Virginia Center for Digital History. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 24 Mar 2014. <>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Kerry Robinson, 24/03/2014