Kounter Restaurant – Serving up a Slice of Civil Rights History
So much of our future lies in preserving our past. ∼ Peter Westbrook
Rock Hill, South Carolina
Located just 20 miles south of Charlotte, North Carolina, Rock Hill is known for its small-town vibe, lower cost of living, and easy access to its big-city neighbor to the north. However, the quieter suburb is rapidly growing, especially in historic downtown. We had the opportunity to travel to Rock Hill in November 2020. While there, we enjoyed the sense of community, discovered some surprising businesses and museums, and had several great meals, but we missed dining at one of the newest restaurants that would soon become the most talked-about destination in town.
Kounter restaurant opened in mid-December, shortly after our visit. There were delays with the build-out and opening due to the pandemic. Still, we had the opportunity to stop by and see the building’s interior and meet the executive chef/owner and native of Rock Hill, Rob Masone. It’s always exciting to have a new restaurant in town, especially one with an intriguing concept, but it’s the significance of the space and what happened in this place on January 31, 1961, that makes Kounter genuinely unique.
A Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement
Kounter sits in what used to be McCrory’s Five & Dime on Main Street in downtown Rock Hill. And it is the counter that grabs your attention as you enter the restaurant. The name “Kounter” seemed fitting since this space is home to the original counter where the Friendship 9 staged their sit-in 60 years ago demanding service at the white-only lunch counter. They knew it was provocative and would lead to arrests, but their “Jail No Bail” stance by this group of nine young African-Americans from Friendship Junior College was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. It also made Rock Hill’s historic downtown one of the most significant locations of the movement as their protest inspired the Freedom Riders of 1961.
When Chef Masone, who owns Kre8 Xperiences, an event and party planning company, and two culinary concepts in Florida, decided to return home and open a restaurant, he was especially interested in the event space at the back of the building at 135 E. Main Street. His passion and focus have always been on special events, but he also wanted to establish a new style of restaurant in his hometown where he could bring the catering world to the table and be able to share his “Interactive Cuisine.” Masone explained, “I want people to experience dishes like they would at a catered event – funky stuff. The average person doesn’t have access to that. My food is not traditional, and I serve it in different vessels and vehicles to excite the palate. I want to make it fun and something special, and I want to build a culture here.” He added, “We also have a great cocktail list, but there’s no chardonnay or pinot grigio on the wine list. We have wines from South Africa, Spain, and Italy, but not from California. I want to educate people that there’s more out there. So, if they want a chardonnay, we offer them something similar, but different.”
Opened in 1937 as a white-only lunch counter at McCrory’s variety store, this restaurant has been several different concepts over the 60 years since the Friendship 9 staged their sit-in. The original counter from that late January day in 1961 was covered over throughout the changes but was never removed from the space. When Masone began the building’s renovations, he removed the veneers from prior designs to see what was beneath and found the laminate counter intact with the old coffee stains and nail holes.
During this time, he first met David Williamson, Jr., one of the local survivors of the group of nine students. You can hear the emotion in Masone’s voice when he talks about the experience of sitting down at the counter to chat with Mr. Williamson “It was like I was talking to my grandad that passed in 2012. We talked about life in general and the protests that had just happened in Rock Hill (related to George Floyd’s death). What stood out to me is how Mr. Williamson kept running his hands over that counter. It was the original ugly pink laminate – dusty and dull. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I knew then that I needed to make this the centerpiece of the restaurant. I would treat it like a Chef’s Table, which is my comfort zone.
“It was my goal since they were refused service in 1961, to serve them first when we open. I know Mr. Williamson has eaten here since 1961, but this time is different. It’s more than just about the food – it’s educating people about the significance of the place and the past. It’s about keeping history alive.” In addition to preserving the original pink countertop with a special epoxy, the entire frame, shelves, and steel sink are still in place. The original foot rails and stools also remain, but the seats have been restuffed and recovered. Each of the chairs has a plaque with a name honoring the members of the Friendship 9. Masone has even kept seven of the old-style menu stands that hold condiments, and he hopes to incorporate them at the counter soon. “People get emotional sitting there when they either know or learn the story. There are all kinds of sensations – the food, the drinks, the history. The experience is emotional.”
Mr. Williamson is one of the last two remaining local survivors of the Friendship 9. He recalls the day of the sit-in, “It wasn’t my idea to go to jail. I was on my way to school, and I met up with them. They had made their plans that weekend.” He went on to explain, “One of them left a note (Clarence Henry Graham) telling their parents, but there was no other prior notice. The judge and everybody was surprised they we didn’t pay the $100 bail and instead went to jail.” While in jail for 30 days, the young men were sentenced to hard labor and solitary confinement, which garnered national attention. They were the first group to make this kind of statement and not accept bail money from the Civil Rights groups.
When Williamson finished school at Friendship Junior College, he said he couldn’t find work in Rock Hill. It was during the Civil Rights movement, and he had been arrested. So, he decided to move north to New Jersey. “Going to jail back then was taboo. We didn’t want anyone to know about it. Even when we got together, we never talked about it, even though we were exonerated. It just wasn’t something you bragged about.” Not talking about the past included conversations in his home. When his daughter, who graduated from Rock Hill’s Winthrop College, learned about the Friendship 9 on the 20th anniversary of that day in 1981, he said, “When she found out, my name was mud, because her mama never said anything either.”
“There were very few blacks in city positions back then, but a lot of good came out of it. There was advancement, and if it takes what we did to make a change, then it’s worth it. It makes you feel proud, but I don’t take the credit.” He added, “If something is available to you and you don’t go out and get it, then all of it is in vain, but it was not in vain. When I came back, some people had jobs in places where I couldn’t get a job, but I wasn’t bitter about it. It was a sign of the times.” When asked how he feels about today’s Black Lives Matter movement, Williamson shared this, “Most of it is non-violent, other than the agitators. We had the same kind of problems back then. We wouldn’t let them get involved because it would have led to violence. Bigger and better – that’s my hope for the country. More change is coming. Unfortunately, the local paper didn’t cover much back then, but it’s different today.”
Williamson gets excited when we start talking about Chef Masone and Kounter. “At first, I thought he was crazy,” he laughs. “I’ve had lots of nice conversations with Chef Rob since we met. He grew up in Rock Hill and graduated from high school here. He even went to the church next to the bus station where John Lewis was beaten up. He was young at the time and didn’t know it, but I rode the bus every Sunday with his dad.” With a sentimental tone in his voice, he added, “I worked downtown at a barbershop and went to the dime store frequently. I remembered what it looked like, but I never expected anything like this. Not that we were looking for it. It’s the fact that the story is being told. He’s highlighting everything and everybody, and it’s remarkable.”
The plan to bring the Friendship 9 and their families into Kounter to be the first served was going to be a challenge due to Covid and the ages of the six living survivors and where they were located. Only three men lived nearby, David Williamson, Jr., Dub Massey, and Willie McCleod. Mr. McCleod just passed away on December 30, 2020, and was not well enough to come into Kounter before he died. Out of respect, Masone honored him with a glass, and a rose at his seat for a week. Now there are only five remaining members of the Friendship 9.
Mr. Williamson and his family were able to come in and be the first people served at Kounter, and Masone said, “He had a ball.” Surrounded by his sisters and daughters, they tried many items on the menu, including the smoking tuna poke, fried ribs, lobster gnocchi, and steak and potatoes. The only thing Masone couldn’t serve him were the Jelly Bean Shots that Mr. Williamson was joking about from his younger days. “It was tough with Covid, but I was at least glad we could get them in to eat.”
“Going forward we are optimistic. The staff came together when we opened, and they’re keeping the energy high. It’s new, fresh, and exciting, and we’ve set the bar high. We’re building a culture and want to make it a place where people want to be. And there’s history. It wasn’t all that long ago that the world was so different. That’s significant, and it’s important to explain and educate people on what happened here.”
* Top image credit – Visit York County
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