Art and Real Life Meet
Playwrights, actors have face-to-face with sit-in icon
On Feb. 8, 1960, Carl Matthews conducted a one-man sit-in at the S. H. Kress lunch counter on the corner of Liberty Street and Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem. According to Matthews, he performed this deed of activism “in honor of the courageous Greensboro Four,” who staged their sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960.
But unlike the Greensboro sit-in, Matthews’ actions attracted supporters from Winston-Salem State University, Wake Forest University and Atkins High School, making the sit-in he initiated the first in the Southeast to involve both blacks and whites. The Winston-Salem sit-in was also one of the first to be resolved successfully. Months after Matthews first sat down, downtown lunch counter owners agreed to end segregated seating.
Matthews is the major character in the play “Taking a Seat at Freedom’s Table” by Reynita McMillan and Felecia Piggott-Long, Ph. D. Winston-Salem State University sophomore Tyrue Rembert portrays Matthews in the production.
Rembert and Matthews met face-to-face during Black History Month at the Carl Russell Sr. Recreation Center. Matthews wanted to meet the young man who took on this role and to show support for the play, which has been read at several area venues.
“I could feel the spirit of his words during the reading,” Matthews said of Rembert. “I like what he is doing, and I want to make sure that I answer any of the questions he may have that could help him take on his role in the production.”
Rembert was excited about meeting Matthews. After the meeting, he is more confident and eager about playing the role of Matthews.
“I was deeply honored to be in his presence,” said Rembert… I felt his courage as he spoke about his leadership and participation in the sit-in movement.”
The first question Rembert asked Matthews was, “Were you ever afraid as you marched and sat in at the various lunch counters?”
“That first day of the sit-in was the worst day of my life, but I was never afraid because I was never alone. I felt the presence of a higher power. It was amazing. I went through a transformation as I sat at those counters,” said Matthews. “There was a time when I thought that since the people were crowding around me so close that someone might try to cut my throat or harm me in some other way. Something on the inside of me gave me peace. I kept repeating the 23rd Psalm and the 27th Psalm to myself. These verses gave me comfort and confidence.”
Playwright Reynita McMillan thanked Matthews for being willing to take a stand for a worthy cause.
“Even though many people were against your actions, you continued to promote liberation when it appeared dangerous and unpopular. I thank you for helping to make Winston-Salem a better place for us to grow up in,” she told him. “Because of you and those who followed your vision, we enjoy freedoms that would not have been possible without your efforts.”