March 17, 1960
Over 100 students picketed the Woolworth’s store on Main Street, Poughkeepsie, to protest against lunch counter segregation in the chain’s southern stores. Apparently by coincidence, simultaneous protests were staged by Smith College and Bennington College students at Woolworth stores in Northampton, MA, and in Bennington, VT.
Investigative reporter McCandlish Phillips put these incidents in context on March 20 in The New York Times:
“Informal organizations have sprung up in the last ten days at a score of colleges and universities, including some of the nation’s foremost institutions. Many of these have gone into action within forty-eight hours.
“There is a quality of invention to their work. The students lack means and experience. They admit to uncertainty about what they can do.
“But money is being raised, meetings are being held and picket lines are forming in sympathy with Negroes who have protested segregation at chain-store lunch counters in the South.
“The present campus generation has been accused of self-concern and a pallid indifference to social or political questions. This issue appears to have aroused it as have few others.”
Vassar senior Marian Gray ’60 told Phillips that a meeting late in the first evening of the gathering at Yale with Democratic Socialist activist Paul DuBrul and Yale Law School alumnus Allard Lowenstein “stimulated us most in deciding to do something on our own campus about civil rights.”
“‘Mr. Lowenstein arrived from Alabama that night,’ Miss Gray said. ‘He and Mr. DuBrul explained the issues and urged students to return to their college communities and organize demonstrations and protests. They urged us to educate our home communities on the problems facing Southern Negroes….’"
Gray then told Phillips about the meeting she and her group arranged on campus with Herbert Hill and Paul DuBrul and about the protest the following evening, the late shopping night in Poughkeepsie:
“‘We announced that we intended to picket Woolworth’s and we got practically the entire audience,’ Miss Gray said.
“Meetings were held in all eight dormitories Wednesday night.
“Late Thursday afternoon about 100 girls rode downtown and carried signs outside the store: ‘Don’t Buy From Woolworth—It Discriminates in the South.’
“‘For the most part the reaction was one of indifference,’ Miss Gray said. ‘There was a little open antagonism and some curiosity. We do not feel we had any effect on the business of the store. We did not really expect to, but we had hoped that we might.’
“Miss Gray, a Negro, said that the picketing was ‘about the most extreme thing we could have done. There have been no pickets at Vassar in the last twenty years. We did not know how to go about it, we did not know what our legal rights were, we did not know how the administration would react and we had to tell the girls that we could not offer them protection of any kind.’
“‘Having told them the risk we did not lose a single girl who had signed up for the demonstration,’ she said….
“Girls from Miami, Fla., Durham, N. C., and Frankfort, Ky., took part in the Vassar demonstration.
“A meeting will be held Wednesday night to decide ‘what other action might be effective here,’ Miss Gray said.” The New York Times
Dr. Marian Gray Secundy '60, the first African American to serve on the Vassar board of trustees (1965-1971) and a founding board member of Triple A VC (African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College), was a professor and the director of the Program in Clinical Ethics at Howard University. Her brother, former Pennsylvania Congressman William H. Gray III, served for many years as president of the United Negro College Fund. He was Vassar' s commencement speaker in 1988.