Civil Rights in Wichita
When you think of the civil rights movement in America, Wichita, Kansas should come to mind, but for most, it doesn’t. Why Wichita? It played a significant role in ending segregation, though for various reasons was largely disregarded by the media at the time.
Today, Wichita’s Ambassador Hotel, which stands on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway, welcomes all guests, but this wasn’t always so. In fact, at one time, this wasn’t so in most of Wichita.
Let’s rewind almost 60 years to Wichita, 1958. There were sharp divides in the way Wichitans were treated when it came to skin color. Segregation was in full swing and several establishments had “white-only” policies. Among these was the Dockum drug store, located in the now-Ambassador building. (This is also the source of the hotel’s 1920’s themed bar, The Dockum’s name.) Like many other establishments at the time, Dockum offered counter seats only to white patrons. African-Americans were required to order from the end of the counter and take their meals to go. A group of Wichita’s African-American students had had enough, and they took it upon themselves to take a stand.
By July of that year, a plan was put into action. Ron Walters, who presided over the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council and his cousin, Carol Parks-Hahn, the organization’s vice president, met with attorney Frank Williams, who presented the idea of a sit-in protest. This idea would become a reality and a major, though overlooked, piece of Wichita’s history.
Walters and Parks-Hahn chose the Dockum as the location for the protest. Part of the national Rexall drug store chain, they hoped that, if successful, their protest might help to end segregation in other cities, too. Walters, Parks-Hahn and several other students would participate in the peaceful sit-in protest.
On July 19, 1958, the protest began. Parks-Hahn was the first to arrive. She ordered a Coke, and when a waitress delivered it, she was surprised. Moments later, the same waitress took back the beverage, claiming that it was against store policy to serve her.
The students came one-by-one. They each request service and were denied. The children were resilient and well-prepared. Despite the continued unfair treatment, they remained in their seats at the counter until closing time each day. The students sat quietly and politely, staging a peaceful protest. Though they were faced with threats and insults, they maintained their composure. For three long weeks, the protest continued before the store owner gave up his former policy, sighting a loss of money as a result of the protest as the reason for his decision.
Historian Gretchen Cassel Eick later wrote a book, “Dissent In Wichita” that shed light on the event. She called the Dockum protest “the first sustained, successful student sit-in of the modern civil rights movement.”
After the students saw the successful end of segregation at the Dockum drug store, other cities followed suit. Similar peaceful sit-in protests would occur in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Greensboro, North Carolina. Winfield and Coffeyville, Kansas also followed suit, according to Eick’s book.
Dockum Drug Store Protest
A statue of a waitress and patrons at a lunch counter stands in Wichita to commemorate the sit-in. Located in Reflection Park on the south side of Douglas between Market and Broadway, the statue's open stools allow visitors to take a seat at the counter, too. The bronze statue is part of the Georgia Weber collection, which features a total of 31 statues in downtown Wichita.
Plans are also being made to create a memorial at the site of the protest.