South Side Sit-In

January 5th, 2010by Peter AlterFiled under: Stories

Jack Spratt Coffee House interior

Jack Spratt Coffee House interior, 1941

Recently, staff working on the Museum’s upcoming United States history exhibition discovered that a very early civil rights sit-in took place in Chicago. DePaul University students Sharon Weber and Joseph Battaglia explore the event in this installment of the People and Places series.

Trips to the local coffee shop have become a daily routine for many of us. Whether we stop for our early morning coffee on our way to work, pass free time reading a book, or meet up with friends to chat, it is a familiar experience. You don’t expect to witness great historical moments when you stop for your triple shot caramel macchiato at your corner Starbucks.

In May 1943, some residents of Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood saw history unfold right in front of them. The Jack Spratt Coffee House, which sat quietly on the corner of Kimbark Avenue and 47th Street, was home to one of our nation’s early sit-ins. Many think of the civil rights movement as belonging to the 1960s and few realize the role Chicago played decades earlier.

Jack Spratt Coffee House exterior

Jack Spratt Coffee House exterior, 1941

In the early 1940s, students from the University of Chicago formed the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE). After a meeting in 1943, CORE members took the discussion to the local coffee shop, Jack Spratt. When a waiter at first refused to serve an African American member of the group, it was clear to CORE’s leaders where they should start a campaign.

In mid-May, CORE sent a group of both African American and white students to occupy seats at Jack Spratt. After the white students were served, but the black students were refused service, the entire group refused to eat or leave their seats until everyone was served. It was not long before other customers joined in the protest. After a couple of hours, the coffee shop’s management contacted the police.

Jack Spratt site parking lot

Parking lot on 47th Street at the previous site of the Jack Spratt Coffee House

Expecting such a reaction, CORE leaders had already called the police. The police told CORE that the protest they had planned would be fully within their rights and that the officers would have no reason to intervene. Sure enough, when the police officers arrived at Jack Spratt, they informed the shop’s employees that the customers were fully within their rights, and the police would have nothing to do with it.

The police told the Jack Spratt staff they must either serve the customers or figure something else out. Not long after the police left, the wait staff reneged on their original policy and served everybody. The group then paid and left Jack Spratt quietly. Over the next few weeks, CORE sent other groups to the coffee shop, all of whom were served.

Next time you get your caffeine fix, think of your favorite coffee place as a potential stage for history.

> Learn more about CORE

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4 Responses to “South Side Sit-In”

  1. Tina Lind Says:

    I learned something I did not know about Chicago history.

  2. Peter Alter Says:

    It is a relatively unknown event and was not well covered at the time in local newspapers.

  3. Peter Eckstein Says:

    I grew up less than two blocks away from Jack Spratt’s, and it was a favorite place to go with a parent or two for lunch or dinner. I was about 7 at the time of the sit-in and knew nothing about it until a few years ago, when I read the story in the NY Times obituary on James Farmer. I doubt that there was any publicity at all for the event when it occurred.

    In my own memory the two murals of Mr. and Mrs. Sprat were several times larger than they appear in the photos, but then I was perhaps several times smaller. I say two murals, because there was one of them each abstaining from a portion of the meal (largely obscured in the photos) and the other of them happily eating what they could. Each had under it the appropriate half of the nursery rhyme. Of special interest was the donut-making machine next to the front door, perhaps dimly seen through the panel just to the right of the door in your exterior photo. It was fascinating to see a fully “automated” process–the word had not yet been invented–whereby the batter was somehow shaped and then submerged in a tank of boiling fat. I remember some adult commenting that people would never eat donuts if they saw how they were being made. I didn’t understand that at the time and ate them for many years thereafter, but, like Jack Spratt himself, I have since deleted them from my diet.

    How gratifying it is to read of the response of the Chicago police–and this back in 1943, no less. They could easily have bought the line that the African-Americans were trespassing by going onto private property where they were not welcome. It took more than two decades to erase that notion through federal public accodations legislation.

    I would love to see more photos of the murals, which were a wonderful part of my childhood.

  4. Peter Alter Says:

    There was relatively little coverage of this at the time despite its importance. At this moment, the photos in this post are the only two that the Museum has of the coffee shop. I would love to see more too.

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