Bowling in Prince Georges County, Maryland
Nancy Stoller

Raw video version

[As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]

My name is Nancy Stoller. Some of you may know me as Nancy Shaw, which was my name from 1966 to 1987. I was born and raised in Hampton, Virginia. Everything was segregated when I grew up. In early 1960, four months after my arrival at a college in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reported the beginning of the sit-in movement. I gathered three other staff members from our college newspaper. We made some signs and crossed through the college gate to the local Woolworth's store. Our sympathy picket and my direct action career began that day in February 1960. At 17, I had just become a member of the Freedom Movement.

That summer, in 1960, I got involved with the D.C. area Non-Violent Action Group (NAG) by joining the daily picket line at the segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park in suburban Maryland. NAG was one of the founding member organizations of SNCC. As a NAG member, I participated in sit-ins throughout eastern Maryland, worked on food and clothing drives for Black southern families deprived of jobs and homes due to voter registration attempts or other activism. And I did other work of support nature for other communities who were involved in the local area organizing. Over the years, aside from my work with NAG and with SNCC, I worked in other Movement organizations in rural areas in Virginia, and I worked in Arkansas for SNCC for 10 months.

But since today's event is about the founding of SNCC in 1960, I want to share one story from that summer which was also SNCC's first year. I call this the "bowling story." We would often go out after our picketing at Glen Echo. Our destination might be someone's house or a restaurant in D.C. where we knew we would be served. But we also considered every trip in any public space as an opportunity to oppose segregation if we encountered it.

One night, we decided to go bowling. Someone had heard of a beautiful new bowling alley in the suburbs, not too far from where we were, but it was located in Prince George's County which had a reputation for being very brutal to those who challenged segregation. No one in our organization had ever heard of African Americans bowling at this alley, but we also thought that it had never been tested. This was in the upper south, and some places were accessible while others were not.

We arrived at around 10 p.m., our usual time to party. I remember that there were maybe six or seven of us. We got our shoes, our bowling shoes, and started to play. None of the [other] bowlers, all white, in the place seemed to notice anything. We were elated. We had desegregated the place just like that.

But then we noticed someone in a discussion at the rental desk. A young man came over to us and told us to leave: This place is for whites only. A member of our group responded that we didn't seem to be making any problems. We had just come to bowl, and the other clients didn't care. This guy told us, however, that we were making a disturbance or there was going to be a disturbance if we stayed. We responded that it was he who was making the disturbance, and it went on like that for a couple of minutes, after which he informed us that he was going to call the police.

About 10 minutes later, the police arrived. After a short conversation with the desk clerk, they came over and told us we had to either leave or be arrested. Of course we declined to leave. They began pulling us, one after the other, from the lane. Our plan was to delay as much as possible, while their plan was to move us out as quickly as they could. "What about my shoes?" One of our members protested. Okay, they said, the bowling alley didn't want to lose these shoes that we had rented, to have them just go off to jail. So we were given a slight reprieve. We each sat down on the floor, and in slow motion, unlaced our bowling shoes, very, very slowly, found our street shoes, and very, very slowly started to put our shoes on.

Of course, we were too slow for them, and the deputies began to pull the guys in our group out the door, and some of them were in their stocking feet. My job was to collect and return the bowling shoes to the rental place, also slowly, slowly, slowly. So meanwhile, of course, nobody in the entire bowling alley was doing any bowling which they had been able to do when we were first there. Everybody was watching this event. The deputies got increasingly agitated, and at one point, one of the cops extended his arm, pushed his hand up underneath my hands, and the seven pairs of shoes that I was slowly carrying back to the rental place. The shoes flew in the air and landed with multiple crashes. Even though it was kind of violent and shocking, there was also something really exhilarating about it, and it was also very funny.

Paul, one of our members — all of the men in our group were arrested and none of the women. Paul gave me his car keys and said: "Follow us to the jail." Paul's car had a stick shift — we're talking 1960 — there weren't very many people driving automatics. I was so nervous I could barely pull out of the parking space because with the stick shift you have to handle the clutch. We were in kind of a caravan. First there were the police cars with the men in them, then our two cars with the women, and I was driving the second car by myself.

There was a police car behind me. The police pulled closer and closer to my car, and then they turned on the lights and pulled me over. My left foot shook so hard that I thought I was going to stop the car right in the middle of the road. I put down the window, of course. "Your license plate is not bright enough. Your license plate light is not bright enough. Give me your license and the car registration." Of course, I had to search and search for the car registration because I knew nothing about this car which was the first time I had ever driven it. I was really scared because I was alone on a dark road with the police. I gave them the information. They wrote me out a ticket. I found my way to the jail. My legs were still shaking while I was driving and still with the police behind me. After finding out about the bail, calling our lawyer, I was there the next morning to bail the guys out.

The sheriff's office gave out my name and address to the local newspaper, and my address was the same as my parents' at that moment. A day later it was published in the paper. That night, my father picked up the phone at 2am and received threats directed at both him and my mother and at me. So that was what it was like. After some work, the charges were dropped against the guys. We were able to desegregate that bowling alley and many other places as well. I was never, ever quite so scared, even though I was in many other demonstrations in some very, very scary locations including being chased and some of the kinds of stories that people here are talking about.

But, my basic values that I've lived by in the last 50 years were brought into practice that summer. I thank SNCC for that experience, and I thank the Movement for that. I've never regretted a single moment of living this way through these values ever since. Thank you.


Copyright © Nancy Stoller, 2010

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