Black History Month holds a special place in the heart of Helen Rayon, Health and Wellness Coordinator at the West Philadelphia Senior Community Center. It conjures up memories of the civil rights movement many years ago, specifically a day at the age of 20, when she and a group of friends courageously carried out lunch counter sit-ins across Sumter, South Carolina.
“As I look back on my life, I thought I had the same rights as anyone else,” says Helen.
The Deep South in 1960 was a much different time in our culture – a time when blacks were segregated from whites. Under the “separate but equal” law, a number of states, including South Carolina, did not permit African Americans to vote or enter places such as classrooms, theaters, restaurants and parks.
“Swan Lake in Sumter had a garden that was magnificent, especially in the spring,” Helen says. “But a black could not visit there unless he was a worker.”
Helen was attending Morris College, working towards a degree in education, when the first lunch counter sit-in took place on February 1, 1960. Four black freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College walked into an F.W. Woolworth Company store in Greensboro, North Carolina, purchased some school supplies, then went to the lunch counter and asked to be served. The lunch counter was segregated. They were not served and forced to leave.
“It was demeaning,” Helen recalled. “Why can’t I have those privileges?” she remembers asking herself.
Although the sit-in didn’t change anything in Greensboro that day, it spurred sit-ins across the south, and inspired Helen and her friends to stage one of their own in Sumter on March 4, 1960.
“We went to the counters and ordered coffee and gum. Someone called out, ‘The (expletive) are here, call the police,’” Helen says. “We were taken to jail for the entire day.”
The NAACP bailed Helen and her fellow students out of jail. She says her father was fearful for her to return home that night because of potential retribution from the Klu Klux Klan in the area. That never happened, but she recalls poor treatment from members of her own race ,who she says, were upset that the students’ actions could ignite racist-violence in the community. What it did ignite, however, were more student sit-ins in cities across the south.
“We just felt it was something we had to do,” she says.
Through sit-ins like the one in which Helen Rayon participated, nonviolent protests and other public events, the civil rights movement was instrumental in enacting sweeping changes across the country. It was responsible for bringing about legislative initiatives like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Helen went on to achieve her Master’s degree in education, teaching students from preschool to 12th grade for 40 years. She married and had two daughters, to whom she instilled confidence and pride of their heritage and sense of self.
“I let them know they are strong black women and whatever goals they had, they had the right to achieve those goals,” Helen says.
Over the years the Rayon home became a virtual library of black history books, a place where the neighborhood children would gather to hear Helen’s stories and perform research for book reports. Now, at the age 74, the retired schoolteacher is modest about her role in the civil rights movement, but proud to serve as a historian to thousands of young people.
“I think it’s important for children in some way know why we are the way we are today, why the fight continues… so they can have a peaceful life,” says Helen. “They are the leaders of tomorrow.”
The West Philadelphia Senior Community Center is funded by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and the Pennsylvania Department of Aging and administered by Lutheran Children and Family Service (a service of Liberty Lutheran.)