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Realtors’ association working to display historic lunch counter

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The lunch counter and seats at the former McCrory’s five-and-dime in Rock Hill, site of several civil rights protests, may soon be on public display again.

The Piedmont Regional Association of Realtors, owners of the building, are working with the Cultural and Heritage Museum and city officials on how to display the counter and seats where members of the Friendship Nine staged their historic civil rights protest in 1961.

The lunch counter and seats had been preserved in the Old Town Bistro for six years, but the restaurant closed in March. It was not uncommon to see a member of the Friendship Nine dining at the restaurant, often with guests or students who wanted to experience history.

Dorothea France of the Realtors association said the historic space is still available for groups to tour.

“We have no intentions of removing anything and we want to make it easily accessible,” she said.

The wall case with salt and pepper shakers from the early 1960s, as well as then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s proclamation about the Friendship Nine, is still on display in the restaurant space.

The Bistro’s lunch counter is the same one where black students from Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill tried to order a cheeseburger in 1961 when it was McCrory’s five and dime.

The nine students were denied service. Each was arrested for trespassing and convicted the next day. After refusing to pay a fine or post bail, nine of the 10 spent a month at the York County prison farm.

“Jail, No Bail” became a new strategy in the civil rights movement, and the nine students became known as the Friendship Nine. Their protest drew national attention.

The Realtors association is looking for a new tenant. Ideally the new tenant would be a restaurant or pharmacy, France said. The space could also be used as offices.

“It’s an ideal site for another restaurant,” said Michael Scoggins, historian with the Cultural and Heritage Museum. The site, the seats and the counter are extremely important to the history of Rock Hill and civil rights in general, he said.

France said she has talked with city officials about possibly moving the lunch counter and chairs into the hallway of the building where it would be easily viewed. The hallway now has several panels telling the history of the building.

The hallway connects to the Palmetto Room, a 300-person banquet facility. France said the Palmetto Room remains open. The association has a list of caterers that people who use the room can choose.

France said if a restaurant moves into the former Bistro space it could be the preferred caterer, but not an exclusive caterer, to events at the Palmetto Room.

David Lawrence, the city’s downtown development manager, said a new tenant for the space may qualify for a facade grant from the city. But city subsidies for rent and marketing have been suspended, he said.

The city is looking to align its grant programs with development of the Knowledge Park, the technology-based economic development effort that centers on the former Bleachery textile site. Development plans call for linking Winthrop University to downtown Rock Hill by way of the textile site.

The subsidy programs are being revamped. Rental assistance may focus on offices. The boundaries of the marketing subsidy program may be expanded to include businesses along Cherry Road near Winthrop.

The Realtor association is also looking to rent offices on the second floor of the building. The available space could accommodate up to six one-person offices.

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