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Tue Feb 11, 2020, 12:06 PM

The Man Behind the Counter

In an iconic photo from 60 years ago, four young African American men sit at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and stare resolutely back at the photographer behind them. Behind the counter is a young busboy. His name was Charles Bess. Here is his story


Many have written about the four men who sat defiantly on February 1, 1960, at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro. But on the other side of the counter stands a fifth person — another young African American man, this one in a white paper hat and a busboy uniform. His eyes are downcast, as if he, too, missed the cameraman’s cue — or, more than likely, looked deliberately away, not wanting to get too caught up in the moment.

“That’s me!” Bess exclaims as he points to the man behind the counter. He laughs and emits a high-pitched giggle, one that resounds through the space and somehow makes Bess seem both aged and youthful at the same time.

Bess was 23 years old when he began working at Woolworth in Greensboro. He had come to the city in 1957 from Kings Mountain, about 130 miles away, to live with his sister, Virginia. It wasn’t long before he got a job at Woolworth, first as a dishwasher.

“It was hard work,” Bess says. “I would take the dishes off the elevator and put them in a tray and send the tray through the machine — the dishwasher. And then it would come out on the other side and I would leave [the dishes] in the tray and they would dry. Then I would stack the dishes up and put them on the little elevator and send them down to the lunch counter.”

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