By Kylie Marsh
The North Carolina African American Heritage Commission will unveil a NC Civil Rights Trail marker at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church on 15-501. The ceremony to unveil the marker will be held at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church at 119 US Highway 15-501 S in Chapel Hill on Saturday, September 23, at 10:30 a.m. It will be the second marker to be located in Chapel Hill out of 50 markers statewide.
History of the site
The marker denotes the Watts Motel and Restaurant location, known as “Watts Grill,” where local students and professors staged a peaceful sit-in in January 1964. Owned by white couple Austin and Jeppie Watts, Watts Grill was the last Chapel Hill establishment to integrate following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The protests were part of a larger campaign to get the Town’s Board of Aldermen (now Town Council) to pass a local Public Accommodations Ordinance that would require businesses to serve Black patrons alongside their white counterparts.
At the time, about 25 percent of Chapel Hill was still segregated despite its being known as a liberal part of the South. An interracial group of Duke and UNC students, professors, and the high school student president of the local NAACP Youth Council visited the restaurant asking to be served. Restaurant staff and local vigilantes assaulted the group when they did not leave the premises.
On Thursday, January 2, 1964, white UNC senior Lou Calhoun and Black high school student Stella Farrar were denied service at the Watts Grill. The two lay down on the floor. In an event that shocked many and appeared in headlines statewide, Jeppie Watts pulled up her skirt and proceeded to urinate on Calhoun. The police were called to the scene and arrested Farrar, Calhoun and others for trespassing, leaving the restaurant staff and vigilantes to go free.
The next day, eleven protesters returned to the restaurant: Duke professors Peter Klopfer, David Smith, Frederich Herzog and Robert Osborn; two UNC professors, Bill Wynn and Albert Amon; several UNC students and high school student Quinton Baker, president of the NAACP Youth Council. It is alleged that Mr. Watts beat up Dr. Amon, and Mrs. Watts beat the protesters with a broom, while other restaurant patrons assaulted the group with a water hose.
The sheriff arrested the protesters for trespassing, freeing the restaurant staff and patrons. Dr. Amon died later that year due to a brain hemorrhage believed to have been sustained during the attack on January 3.
Quinton Baker, John Dunne and several other protesters were sentenced to several months in jail, until then North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford commuted their sentences in December 1965.
The Town Board of Aldermen ended up not passing the ordinance. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, several groups returned to the Watts Grill to test the new law. They were denied service and attacked. However, Austin Watts was arrested and charged with assault. The next day, finally, Black patrons were served. The Watts later sold the business, refusing to comply with the new law mandating integration.
Why the location of the marker?
It wasn’t until a group at Holy Trinity Anglican Church googled their building’s address that they stumbled upon an Open Orange blog post that discussed the sit-ins. Senior Warden Dianne Martin said the church doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence.
Holy Trinity sits on the property of the former Watts Grill, the site of the sit-in protests that resulted in such violence against peaceful protesters.
“We believe this is a God instance, that it’s something we were called to do,” she said. “Our sanctuary is located where the events occurred. This very profane space is being turned sacred.”
The original protestors and their relatives live in Chapel Hill and plan to be present at Saturday’s ceremony. Hank Tarlton, Deacon of Holy Trinity, said that the marker will give those community members an opportunity to share their side of history.
“This really isn’t our story to tell,” he said. “It sends the message that these things happened here, not just in Birmingham, Alabama.”
A former TLR correspondent from Durham, Kylie Marsh returns to writing for the paper, albeit from new digs in Charlotte. Her work has also appeared in QCity Metro. As a graduate of NYU, she writes about local issues of class, race and inequality. When not freelancing, Kylie is organizing for the rights of workers, women and the homeless in Charlotte.