In July 1958, a light-skinned black woman named Carol Parks Hahn sat down at the counter of Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. The waitress served her a Coca-Cola, only to withdraw when customers of darker complexion arrived and the server realized Parks Hahn wasn't white.

But Parks Hahn and her companions were at the soda fountain for more than a Coke. They were there to protest racial discrimination.

Thus began the little-known, yet first, successful student-led sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement.

Patrons mingle at a drug store soda fountain, circa 1958.

The Symbolic Soda Fountain

In the 1950s, soda fountains were popular, albeit largely segregated, sites of social gathering where people could pass time at the counters, enjoying sandwiches, ice cream and Coca-Cola.

The Dockum soda fountain in Wichita was a particularly frequented hub where commuters would pass the time waiting for the bus or seeking respite from the frigid Midwestern winters.

Black patrons, however, were denied such service.

Though segregation in Wichita was not legal on paper, social codes enabled those in power to enforce a different standard. Exclusion from soda fountains reflected a broader cultural climate of racial intolerance.

“The kind of discrimination we had in this country and that we need to continue fighting denies people their personhood," said Mark McCormick, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum. "It denies them dominionhood over their own bodies.”

He adds, “The symbolism of the fountain speaks to a denial of something we all absolutely need, which is sustenance.”

Wichita would become the first of many cities in which the symbolic battle for bodily reclamation successfully took place at a soda fountain.

In part, protestors chose Dockum because it was a chain, so having an impact at one location would spread to others. The Dockum Drug Store shown in this photo from the 1930s was a few blocks away from the store where the sit-in occurred.

Kansas State Historical Society

Ordinary Young People

After Parks Hahn ordered a Coke, other black youth joined the protest at the Dockum counter, sitting for service that would not come. When a sit-in participant would leave after fruitless waiting, another would take his or her seat, filling the space of potential white customers.

In only a few weeks, the owner had lost enough money that he desegregated Dockum.

Among the protestors were Joan Williams and Dr. Galyn A. Vesey. Thinking back to the Wichita sit-in that took place nearly 50 years ago, Vasey laughs, “I’m not sure how old I was in 1958.”

He turns to Williams, doing the math, “If you were 18, I must have been 21.”

McCormick believes that with these protestors’ youth came power. “It’s always young people who see the world as it could be," he said. "They’re not as afraid of repercussions, so they launch in, while us old folks sit back and are nervous for them, but afterwards are glad they did.”

A contemporary counter at the Old Mill Tasty Shop in Wichita.

Indeed, in Wichita it was young people who organized meticulously, creating scheduled shifts in which a protester might sit four to six hours at the counter. Friends joined friends in structured protest to demand an end to the socially mandated segregation.

“There was no glamor,” Vesey recalls.

It was tiring work, waiting for hours at the counter, fearing how others might respond to their violation of social code. Protestors endured racial slurs. Their jobs and those of their parents’ might have been jeopardized if employers knew of their dissent. Blacks endured violence for existing in white spaces; fresh in everyone’s mind was the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi only three years before.

The young people knew of the risks as they sat for hours at a time, quietly waiting to be served.

But to hear them tell it, the act of protest was fairly unremarkable. Vesey says quite simply, “The only thing it required was a little courageousness and some of our time.” What kept running through his mind were the elderly black people who were regularly denied service and left to wait for buses in the cold.

Williams too seems uncomfortable with praise for her act of protest, insisting that they were just “ordinary people” trying to be treated fairly.

So “ordinary” was her act, that in the years following the sit-in, she rarely thought back to her participation in the protests, never even telling her family about her involvement. It wasn’t until a local historian sought Williams out that she reflected on her experience.

When asked if she now feels their act of protest was significant, Williams pauses before answering. “On some days I do," she says quietly. “I really was surprised about people thinking how great it was.” 

Remembering the Sit-In

A monument stands in a Wichita city park honoring the sit-in participants, depicting a scene at the soda fountain. A server takes an order, while customers wait for Coca-Cola and milkshakes. Several seats at the bronzed counter remain empty – an invitation for passerby to join ongoing fights against injustice.

While the fight has now moved from soda fountains, Williams and Vesey are clear that it has not ended.

“It took what happened here in Wichita, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Greensboro, perhaps even the death of Emmett Till and what the black children at Little Rock High School went through to get a measure of justice,” Vesey explains. “And we are still on a treadmill.”

Williams is hopeful that the treadmill will slow, believing that when individuals do their part to fight for justice, “It will eventually spread to everyone.” But to do that, people need to remember the nation’s history of racial discrimination and the “ordinary people” who combated it.

Though the monument is a part of preserving that message, it remains tucked away in the park, with cobwebs that stretch between the figures and the obscene graffiti that coats them.

McCormick believes by sharing the story of the sit-ins and the courage of its participants, the statue can shed its cobwebs. “The biggest shame is that there are a lot of people who didn’t know what they did," he said. "My job is to make people understand not just what they did but why they did it and what the context was.”

He concludes, “We owe a lot to the Civil Rights Movement, and we just happen to have had one of its most important moments right here in Wichita.”