WOOLWORTH ON FIFTH
Where open for business
means opening up history.
The building and businesses at 221 5th Avenue North is a critical piece of our country’s history. Upon completion in the 1890’s, the building was home to several businesses before Woolworth opened one of the original “five and dime” stores here in 1913, which attracted shoppers looking for quality and value. Several successful years later, the lunch counter at Woolworth opened in 1925 to offer an affordable meal to shoppers and workers in downtown Nashville, adding to the popular American ritual of that time. At a time when the country was still operating under the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s, African American were prohibited from eating at public lunch counters. However, African American students in Nashville started to challenge this decades-old practice of segregation at lunch counters.
On February 13, 1960, a group of young African Americans began the movement to desegregate Nashville lunch counters. Three different groups of college students, most of whom attended historically black universities, including Fisk University, American Baptist College, and Tennessee A&I, sat at downtown Nashville’s lunch counters at Woolworth, Kress, and McClellan asking to be served. They were denied service.
On February 27, 1960, a student-led movement drew more than 200 protestors to the lunch counters at Woolworth, Kress, and McClellan, resulting in national media attention and several arrests. Among the protestors arrested was future US Congressman John Lewis, who protested from the lunch counter at Woolworth. A strong challenger of segregation and racism, Congressman Lewis was arrested almost fifty times for nonviolent protest throughout the course of career. His arrest at Woolworth that day was his very first.
April 11, 1960, brought another wave of African American students to the first floor lunch counter at Woolworth. When the students arrived at that lunch counter, Woolworth staff immediately closed the first floor counter. Store employees then stood at the stairs going up to the mezzanine lunch counter, only allowing white customers access to the upper level lunch counter.
On April 19, 1960, the home of Nashville Civil Rights Attorney Z. Alexander Looby was bombed. That same day, four thousand students, including a young John Lewis, marched to the courthouse and confronted Mayor Ben West. Among those marching was Fisk University student Diane Nash, who is credited with asking Mayor West if segregation at the lunch counters was morally right. Mayor West answered no and the official process of desegregation at downtown lunch counters began.
Today, the building is a registered historic site as part of the Fifth Avenue Historic District in Nashville for its part in the Civil Rights movement.