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Commentary Detail

Howard Johnson's Sit-Ins
Commentary by: Bob Archibald
Aired March 16, 2012

Itís been a long time since the distinctive orange roof of a Howard Johnsonís restaurant graced the St. Louis skyline, but long-time St. Louisans still talk about the several restaurants in the local franchise. Iíve heard about stopping at Howard Johnsonís on Clayton for fried clam strips after bowling at Tropicana and hot fudge sundaes at the North Kingshighway ďHoJoísĒ after a high school football game at Public School Stadium. Some folks even remember their favorite flavor among the famous twenty-eight different ice creams.

My African American friends, whatever their age or residence, did not ever mention the restaurant. I found an explanation in a photo exhibit that the History Museum has organized. In pictures and audio interviews, we discover a story that is relatively unknown but one that should resonate throughout our community. Itís a story about young people, kids even, who made a substantial and edifying difference.

Fifty-one years ago three teenagers from Vashon High School decided the racial restriction that kept them out of Howard Johnsonís, and too many other restaurants in the city, had been in force long enough. Their first protest on October 17, 1960 was quiet, courteous, and determined, as was every one of them thereafter. It took a sustained effort, but these three young African Americans with support from other students in the NAACP Youth Council saw it through. Within a few weeks fourteen restaurants had revoked segregation in their establishments. Howard Johnsonís was not among them. Indeed ďHoJoísĒ kept its doors closed to certain would-be patrons almost until it became illegal to do so.

The Vashon studentsí pickets and sit-ins brought community-wide attention and considerable public sympathy to the unfairness that marked so many aspects of African American life in St. Louis. In May of 1961 the Board of Aldermen enacted a bill that erased racial restrictions in all public accommodations. A nearly identical bill had been rejected in the recent past; but thanks to the determination of some courageous and inventive students, the issue was revitalized and achieved public support. With the aldermenís action the color bar, at least in the law, had been lifted in St. Louis.

Those teenage activists are now senior citizens. They still have a story to tell, and the History Museum is privileged to help them tell it. Their memories of those past days are a valuable legacy that every one of us can treasure and employ.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Bob Archibald

Bob Archibald


Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society

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