Come for the Dr Pepper Float, Stay for the Civil Rights History

Come for the Dr Pepper Float, Stay for the Civil Rights History

Texas History

Come for the Dr Pepper Float, Stay for the Civil Rights History

Waco’s Dr Pepper Museum offers an insightful exhibit on the 1960s lunch counter protests that helped desegregate Texas.

Sit Down to Take a Stand Exhibition at Dr Pepper Museum
The “Sit Down to Take a Stand” lunch counter exhibit at Waco’s Dr Pepper Museum.
Courtesy of Dr Pepper Museum

Cherry Boggess paused on the sidewalk just outside the door to Pipkin Drug Store, in Waco. She turned to the half dozen students from historically Black Paul Quinn College, her alma mater, who had accompanied her. “Remember,” she told them, “if they spit on us, we’ve got to take the spit. If they cuss us out, we don’t curse them back. We’ve got to do this, because we have a right to sit at that lunch counter and eat if we want to.”

Boggess and her compatriots went inside, and heads turned as they walked to the lunch counter. In addition to the pharmacy and shelves of toiletries, stationery, and candy, the store had a diner-style bar where patrons could order fountain drinks and hamburgers. White patrons, that is. In the early 1960s, Pipkin’s still did not serve Black patrons, making it a target for the students’ nonviolent protest. 

Boggess had transferred—reluctantly—to Paul Quinn from Knoxville College, a historically Black institution in Tennessee. Inspired by the February 1960 student sit-ins at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, she had joined a group of students who spent several days in Nashville training to remain calm in the face of likely harassment and violence. They then went to a Knoxville lunch counter, sat down, and asked to order. White patrons cursed at them, and when one white man put his cigarette out in the hair of one of Boggess’s friends, the friend lost his resolve and punched the man. Boggess, guilty by association, ended up in jail.

She was soon released, but the episode did not sit well with her mother, who decided Boggess would transfer to Paul Quinn College, then located in Waco. Her godfather, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, lived nearby and could keep an eye on her.

But Boggess was undeterred. At Paul Quinn, she organized a group of students and coordinated nonviolent-resistance training. When Pipkin Drug Store refused to serve one of the students’ friends, they took action.

The students sat down at the Pipkin counter, but the staff wouldn’t acknowledge them. The cook was a Black man, and Boggess remembers him shaking his head at the group, as though to discourage them. On a subsequent visit, the students arrived to find the stools at the counter removed; someone had seen them coming and tipped off the staff. But the activists continued to demonstrate, and one day, the Black cook approached them to take their order.

“If they won’t let me make you your food, I can go work someplace else,” he answered. They didn’t see the man on their next visit. 

Finally, in late 1961, after several visits from Boggess and her fellow young activists, the store agreed to serve them. It was the outcome of their efforts and other demonstrations, as well as a behind-the-scenes decision from Waco’s business leaders. The almighty dollar ruled: protests cut into restaurants’ profits. Plus, having seen the violence inflicted by angry whites due to sit-ins in other cities, including Houston, local leaders had chosen to follow the example of San Antonio and integrate lunch counters voluntarily. 

“We were proud of ourselves,” Boggess remembered.

Her story and those of other local activists are now told in an exhibit at a Waco museum dedicated not to the civil rights movement or to African American history but to a soft drink. In late 2021, almost exactly sixty years after Boggess’s actions helped integrate Waco diners, the Dr Pepper Museum opened the ongoing exhibit “Sit Down to Take a Stand” in a corner of its gift shop and soda fountain. At a replica lunch counter, visitors watch a film that explains the sit-in movement and how it affected Waco. The exhibit demonstrates that the movement reached beyond highly publicized events in Selma, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; and Memphis, Tennessee, and was led by often unsung heroes as it unfolded across the South.

Museums nationwide are trying to diversify their audiences and exhibits, and with an exhibit that links a soft drink’s cultural history to the larger struggle for civil rights, the Dr Pepper Museum has become an unexpected standard-bearer in its field.

“The staff at the Dr Pepper Museum have cared enough to address difficult topics,” said Peaches Henry, the local NAACP president and an English professor at McLennan Community College. “They’re teaching people that confronting negative aspects of our history can be a positive, if challenging, experience.”

The Dr Pepper Museum occupies two historic buildings connected by a courtyard in downtown Waco, a block from the shopping and dining complex Magnolia Market at the Silos, owned by home-renovation stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. Inside the 80,000-square-foot museum are 40,000 square feet of exhibit space, featuring soft drink ads, memorabilia, and a mesmerizing mock bottling room, where conveyor belts shuttle a procession of vintage green bottles in an infinite loop. Many visitors end their tour by sipping a drink or float from the museum’s soda fountain. Until recently, that attraction had a vintage design that mixed elements from the 1920s and 1950s and prompted older guests to reminisce about after-school milkshakes and first-date floats. 

But such nostalgia was limited to white visitors. In those eras, African Americans risked a beating if they dared sit down in a Southern soda fountain. 

In 2018, Chris Dyer, a native Wacoan and Baylor graduate, became the museum’s president and CEO. Dyer, a lanky blond in his late forties who speaks in a disarming Waco drawl, immediately noticed that the membership of the museum’s board skewed heavily toward older white men. That didn’t reflect the diversity of Waco, which is 44 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent Black. The museum’s visitors (more than 150,000 of them so far this year) come from all over the world. Dyer worked with the board’s nominating committee to adapt its recruitment practices and bring on nineteen new members, including multiple women, African Americans, and Latinos.

The museum’s staff, too, was mostly white, and Dyer and associate director Joy Summar-Smith solicited input from the four African American board members, including board chair Anthony Betters Sr., and from leaders in the Black community. Did African Americans in Waco feel welcome at the museum? If not, what should change?

It’s difficult for museums to track data about visitors’ races, but a casual observer could see that the Dr Pepper Museum wasn’t attracting a racially diverse audience. Zip code data revealed that locals weren’t coming, either. Museums have practical reasons to cultivate a broad base of visitors and donors. As the country’s demographics become more racially diverse, institutions that attract only white audiences jeopardize their own futures. Yet a widely cited 2008 analysis by the Center for the Future of Museums concluded that less than 10 percent of museums’ core visitors are non-white. Dyer was concerned about future financial stability, but he was equally determined to lead a museum where all people felt like they belonged. 

As he and Summar-Smith asked questions, they realized the soda fountain’s retro vibe conveyed a certain tone deafness to some Black visitors. Older white guests might have pleasant memories, but some Black people from the same era “were literally dragged off a soda fountain stool and thrown on the floor,” said Summar-Smith. “So there’s these two very opposite ideas that we very rarely see put together in the same space.”

Board member Dexter Hall told the group about his experience at the sit-in simulation at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, in Atlanta. There, visitors sit at a mock lunch counter and don headphones to hear the threats hurled at the peaceful protestors. An audio installation like that felt too intense for a soft drink museum, but Dr Pepper was, after all, invented at a drugstore soda fountain in Texas; the connection to the movement could be made.

Summar-Smith started looking for information about local sit-ins. Newspapers were little help; the quiet integration achieved in late 1961 extended to a lack of press coverage. Editors at the major papers would have been part of the white business community and probably thought stories about the protests could lead to violence, Summar-Smith said. Instead, Betters, Hall, and another board member named Gary Myles reached out to Wacoans, such as Boggess, who had direct experience with segregation and integration. 

Several former activists sat down for interviews with Stephen Sloan, the director of the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University. The conversations captured the memories of an aging generation, filling some of the gaps in Waco’s historical record and helping a broader audience learn about the desegregation movement.

Oral history helps “democratize the historical record,” Sloan says, by collecting information from people underrepresented in traditional archives (case in point: the local papers). And highlighting local history can help people make connections between the past and their own lives. The Dr Pepper Museum exhibit may pique visitors’ curiosity about what happened in their own towns. In Texas, sit-ins occurred in cities including Austin, Beaumont, Dallas, Galveston, and Houston. In Marshall, many student protestors were arrested, and, instead of integrating, lunch counters closed permanently in 1960. San Antonio, on the other hand, was the first Southern city to peacefully and voluntarily—more or less—integrate its lunch counters. Ahead of a planned protest in March 1960, white church and business leaders decided participating establishments would all begin serving Black patrons the same day, so that no one incurred the financial risk of going first. San Antonio’s example may have inspired Wacoans to follow the same course.

The exhibit team’s efforts culminated in an eleven-minute film that explains the local and national sit-in movement through archival footage and voice-overs pulled from the oral histories. Marian Wilson, a local African American educator, provides narration. In addition to making the film, the team redesigned the soda fountain, replacing the vintage signs, logos, and piped-in music with material from later in the 1960s, when people of all races would have been welcome. Today visitors can sit at the lunch counter, built into a corner of the room, and watch the film amid the cacophony of the crowded dessert shop. The seriousness of the subject matter is at odds with the room’s cheerful decor. The incongruity may be welcomed by history-minded visitors and overlooked by weary parents deciding whether to buy a souvenir T-shirt. On the hot July afternoon when I visited, most people in the soda fountain seemed focused on ice cream, air-conditioning, and corralling their sugar-high children.

Though it might not have been obvious that day, recent data suggest the exhibit is reaching a new audience. Attendance continues to grow: as of early September, the museum had seen a 22 percent year-over-year increase in visitors. Dyer says the growth can’t be attributed directly to the new exhibit, but neither can it be explained solely as a postpandemic rebound, an effect of the Silos, or an outcome of the awards the exhibit has received from the Texas Historical Commission and the American Association for State and Local History. Anecdotally, he says he’s witnessed more racial diversity among visitors. Although the museum was prepared for possible pushback, staff members haven’t seen any; those who aren’t interested in the exhibit just pass it by.

Black community leaders say they’ve begun to see the museum as a more welcoming, inclusive place that tells a broader story. Rachel Pate, the vice president of economic development at the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber gets calls from Black travelers asking where to go during upcoming visits to Waco. The chamber now includes the Dr Pepper Museum on its list of recommendations. Betters, the board chair, said that a group of senior citizens from a local Black Baptist church asked him to help schedule a tour this fall. That wouldn’t have happened, he said, without his presence on the board and without the exhibit. “We’re telling a story that happened in our backyard that’s not found in the history books,” Betters said.

The changes aren’t limited to a single exhibit. After “Sit Down to Take a Stand” launched, the staff produced a new installation for the museum’s historic bottling room. “The People Who Made Dr Pepper” features life-size photographs of employees, several of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants, from the first half of the twentieth century: a Black man, a Latino man, a Russian Jewish man, and a German American woman. When a visitor stands in front of each photograph, an audio recording activates and an actor’s voice portrays the employee. The narration for Ellis Booker, a Black man who worked for the company for more than fifty years, mentions the Ku Klux Klan’s unsuccessful attempt to pressure owner Robert S. Lazenby to fire Booker, as well as the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington that occurred just blocks away. In late 2024 the museum will open an exhibit about convenience stores that interprets their role in Texas travel and incorporates references to the Green Book, a guide that listed establishments friendly to African American motorists during segregation. 

Pate and Henry, the NAACP president, both said the Dr Pepper Museum is filling a gap the state creates when it limits discussion of race in public schools. In 2021 the Texas Legislature passed a bill restricting how schools can teach racial history, and books by or about Black Americans have been banned by numerous school districts. “The state of Texas is participating in what is a national effort to erase Black history and culture, and that is the void the Dr Pepper Museum helps to fill,” Henry said. “If we are getting this kind of effort in schools and school districts, we’ll have to make sure the history is presented somewhere else.”

The curators at the Dr Pepper Museum are quietly making sure that visitors go home having learned about more than just soda. “They’re going to be used as an example,” Pate said, “of how you can take something that can be very controversial, that can be hard, that can be political, and, without watering it down, present it to the masses in a way that everyone can receive it.”

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