Where open for business
means opening up history.
The building at 221 5th Avenue North was built in the 1890s, and after cycling through several businesses, opened as a Woolworth “five and dime” store in 1913. The building is a registered historic site as part of the Fifth Avenue Historic District in Nashville. One of the original five and dimes, Woolworth attracted shoppers looking for quality and value. The lunch counter at Woolworth opened in 1925. Since the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s prohibited African Americans from eating at these public lunch counters, generations of African Americans grew up without being able to enjoy this popular American ritual. That was about to change, as African American students attending college in Nashville sought to challenge this decades-old practice of segregation at lunch counters.
On February 13, 1960, a group of mainly of college students from historically black universities Fisk University, American Baptist College and Tennessee A & I, walked into the downtown locations of Woolworth, Kress and McClellan, sat down at the lunch counters and asked to be served, to no avail. Their goal was to desegregate Nashville lunch counters.
On February 27, 1960 the student-led movement drew more than two hundred student protesters, leading to multiple arrests and national media attention. Throughout his career, US Congressman John Lewis has been arrested almost fifty times for nonviolent protest, challenging segregation and racism. His first arrest took place while sitting in at the lunch counter on the first floor of this Woolworth.
On April 11, 1960, another wave of students came to Woolworth to sit in at the lunch counter. When the students arrived at the first floor lunch counter, Woolworth immediately closed it. Store employees stood at the stairs going up to the mezzanine lunch counter, only allowing whites to go upstairs to the upper level.
On April 19, 1960, the home of Civil Rights Attorney Z. Alexander Looby was bombed. That day, four thousand students, including John Lewis, marched to the courthouse to confront Mayor Ben West. When Fisk student Diane Nash asked Mayor West if segregation at lunch counters was morally right, he answered no. This day started process of desegregation at downtown lunch counters.