Woolworth’s department store first opened in 1910 within the Cleveland building on South Main Street before expanding in 1936 to a huge new store at the corner of North Main and West Washington streets. One of the improvements of the facility was that it was fully air-conditioned. According to a local newspaper, this new location featured a lunch counter “at which all types of soft drinks and lunches will be served. As an added attraction for opening day, the department will serve a turkey dinner for 25 cents.” This lunch counter, however, was for whites only.
While Woolworth’s lunches were an integral part of many Greenvillians’ daily lives, what ultimately made the restaurant important in our city’s history is the role it played during the crucial time of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Following the first lunch counter sit-in that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960, the movement arrived in Greenville five months later. After several sit-ins at Greenville’s public library, the first restaurant sit-ins took place on July 18, 1960, at two downtown lunch counters: W.T. Grant Co. and S.H. Kress & Co. A second sit-in event took place simultaneously on Aug. 2 involving 20-30 Black participants at W.T. Grant Co., S.H. Kress & Co., H.L. Green Co. and Woolworth’s — all of which closed their lunch counters to clear the areas. No arrests were made at these sit-ins. The next day demonstrators returned to those stores as well as attempted to play a game of softball in the white-only Cleveland Park. On Aug. 24 the first picketing demonstration was held, which included the sidewalk in front of Woolworth’s, with signs reading, “Behold, I Stand at the Door and They Won’t Let Me Eat,” “Stop Segregation” and “Give Respectable Eating Equality Now.”
In September, Woolworth’s and other department stores formally agreed to end segregation nationally at their lunch counters, but “local customs” continued to be followed. In May 1963, the case of Peterson v. The City of Greenville went to the Supreme Court, which decided that segregation at eating establishments was unconstitutional. Subsequently, Greenville wiped all such ordinances from its laws. In the words of local Black lawyer Willie Smith, who helped push that case through, it was “a landmark case.” Successfully integrating at eating establishments is what led to other businesses, such as movie theaters and hotels, doing the same.