It helped change the course of history – but few people knew about it. The 1958 Dockum Drugstore Sit-in was an effort to end segregation in Wichita and the United States. This quiet movement spoke loudly to the passion of the students who led it, making it one of the first organized sit-ins in the country.
The Dockum Drugstore (owned by Rexall) was a one of the most popular eating establishments in downtown Wichita, which like many of the other restaurants and stores of the day only served white people. African-Americans could order food to go, but they were forced to order from the end of the counter and leave after getting their food or stand in the corner to eat.
One day, Carol Parks-Hahn and her cousin Ron Walters decided to test the limits of the segregation rules. They wanted to know what it felt like to be served a drink in a glass, rather than disposable containers. Walters had read about a sit-in in California, and found this peaceful measure could lead to de-segregation.
On July 19, 1958, the two and their friends began going to the drugstore every day, sitting at the counter and ordering a soda. The students were quiet and respectful, but management continued to refuse them service. Walters said he wanted to make sure the group showed up at “a business level,” and were not viewed as disruptive patrons. At one point, the drugstore closed the counter because white customers refused sit next to the black students.
The group returned everyday for nearly a month, until on Aug. 11, 1958, the owner finally said, “Serve them – I’m losing too much money.” Their peaceful and unrelenting protest was a huge victory for the abolishment of segregation in Kansas. Soon after the students were served in Wichita, Rexalls across the nation followed suit and de-segregated, first in Oklahoma City on Aug. 19, 1958, and then in Greensboro, North Carolina on Feb. 1, 1960.
Locally, unless a person was involved with the sit-in or witnessed it downtown, not many knew what was happening at Dockum Drugstore. There were no media inquiries aside from a single photo in the Wichita Enlightener – the city’s black newspaper – few television interviews, and police officers were given specific orders to keep out of it.
Not many knew of the bravery displayed by those kids until a Wichita historian helped bring the story to light. In 1998, a bronze sculpture was built about a block from the original Dockum Drugstore (next to Ambassador Hotel Autograph Collection with Dockum, a speakeasy-style bar located in basement) to commemorate the sit-in, and the students were honored at a 50th anniversary ceremony in 2008. The sculpture is set up in Chester I. Lewis Reflection Square Park. Lewis was a black attorney from Wichita who filed and won the first Civil Right’s case in the city’s history.
The Dockum Sit-in wasn’t the first in the country. In August 1939, an African-American attorney by the name of Samuel Tucker organized a sit-in in Alexandria, Virginia, one of the earliest recorded sit-ins to protest segregation. The momentum didn’t seem to pick up nationally until the 1950s, with sit-ins happening in Baltimore, Maryland; Durham, North Carolina; Wichita, Kansas; Winfield, Kansas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Greensboro, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Rock Hill, South Carolina and Chicago, Illinois.