VOL. 41 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 28, 2017
Woolworth on 5th a fitting tribute to city’s sit-ins
Nashville students take a stand with the first lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s on February 13, 1960. The site, which until recently was a Dollar General store, is being transformed into Woolworth on 5th, a restaurant and memorial to the movement. -- Nashville Public Library, Special Collections
Police didn’t stop me from entering the five-and-dime, site of one of America’s eventual and monumental civil rights victories.
They didn’t drag me out either, as I assume they figured I’m a harmless old man. And, no one spat on me.
Oh, sure there were plenty of cops parked or patrolling the downtown jungle of napping homeless, massive cranes and its soundtrack of jackhammers, cement mixers, circular saws and sirens enveloping me as I walked through the too-busy “It City” to this spot halfway between Church and Union ... only to be turned away at what passes for the front door.
No, officers didn’t try to keep me from the building that was once a Wollworth’s, where in the winter of 1960 sit-ins by students and other heroic proponents of the land of the free, home of the brave changed our city for good and for the good.
Those occurrences pretty much slammed shut the door, figuratively and literally, to ignorant segregation at lunch counters across what was then a drawling, low-rise Music City.
No doubt the friendly coppers watched and wondered what I was doing out in the middle of Fifth with my taped-together camera pointed at this particular construction zone. Nashville’s noontime-in-a-hurry white collars likely also wondered why I was mid-street, craning my neck in a sweaty attempt to focus the camera at the building.
Fact is, I had begun on the sidewalk, but stepped into the avenue – looking both ways, as my mother taught me – so I wouldn’t slow down 9-to-5ers hustling back to their cubicles for afternoon meetings and naps.
After firing off a few frames, I completed my Fifth Ave. crossing and ambled to the thick, plywood bridge that leads from the roadway and into the gape-mouthed doorway of the old five-and-dime, where I tried to talk my way in.
Standing in that doorway, chatting with amiable construction workers on smoke breaks, I waited for project superintendent Walt Brettschneider, who I watched navigate the main level of the former store.
Shaking hands, I asked Walt if I could come in and look around this historic building being rescued from pigeons and bypassed by a city where daily 100 new residents arrive with no idea what occurred in this disheveled building and up and down this avenue.
Walt, a genial guy with a great handshake, denied me entry. Seems he had steel being cut, blow torches blowing, saws sawing … well, just too much dangerous stuff going on inside. OSHA regulations and good common sense forced him to turn this old civilian away. Since I had no desire to die on this early afternoon, I appreciated his concern.
Walt slipped his calling card into my hand and said if I’d call ahead some other day; he’d see if he could give me a tour of the storefront that helped shape our history 57 years ago.
“I don’t know when I’ll have the time, but I’ve got way too much happening today,” he said, with a genuine smile.
The air tasted like cement dust as I spoke with him and looked past our spot in the doorway and inside the building where Nashville’s first lunch counter sit-in occurred on Feb. 13, 1960.
It was on that day that 124 students, mostly from nearby historically black colleges, walked into this building – as well as nearby Kress and McClellan buildings – sat down at the whites-only lunch counters and ordered, only to be refused service.
They didn’t give up and they kept returning here until their fourth sit-in at this Wollworth’s on that Feb. 27, when the college students were pulled from their seats by folks who appeared normal Caucasians but really were common thugs, who proceeded to punch, kick and spit on the protesters.
In a sane world, of course – if you can call this Trump era sane – officers would have come to the aid of the students, innocent protesters simply following Dr. King’s non-violent example for peaceful protest.
Eighty-one were arrested, charged with loitering and disorderly conduct and fined $50. On principle, they declined to pay bail and spent the next month or so in jail.
I’m here on this steamy Nashville day to get a look at the old five-and-dime that local entrepreneur, history buff and truly nice guy Tom Morales is attempting to resurrect as Woolworth on 5th.
The planned restaurant will offer reimagined “healthy” soul food and Southern hospitality. There also will be a club where poets, pickers, prophets and funk bands will entice all-comers to dance to the music. The idea is to have fun while at the same time celebrating this living memorial to those protesters and their eventual victory for us all.
Tom – boss of TomKats Hospitality – tells me, in a conversation preceding my trip downtown, that he decided to take on the restaurant and restoration as soon as, “I found out it was available,” after entrepreneurial group Fresh Hospitality bought it from Dollar General.
“I had a call that said basically: ‘Hey we bought this building and it’s in your wheelhouse.’
“History has always meant a lot to me,” says Tom, who used his talents to save the Loveless Café from being replaced by a strip mall and transform Acme Feed & Seed into one of Lower Broadway’s freshest beer and music venues.
His own happy childhood memories have fueled his attempts to save Nashville from itself.
“The Loveless, well, I thought about mom and dad driving two cars from Madison before there was the interstate, eight or 10 kids in each car going to the Loveless,” he recalls.
So many happy memories that when the Loveless became, shall we say, disheveled, a few years ago, he was not going to let that childhood purveyor of chicken and biscuits, destination of so many happy drives from Madison to Pasquo, be jack-hammered and steam-shoveled into oblivion.
Construction continues at Woolworth on 5th, where civil rights protesters staged sit-ins in 1960 and were met with anger and violence. -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
“They were going to tear it down and make it a strip mall,” he says, a note of dismay – or perhaps even disgust? – in his voice. Now, it is a flourishing restaurant surrounded by shops and even a concert venue.
“Acme was an iconic childhood memory,” he continues, as we chat about these projects that are equal parts good business and preserved heritage.
“We would go (to Acme) to get dog food, and they had a free flea dip for your dogs. And my dad was a Type A personality, so he enjoyed going there and talking to people. It was a social thing. A free flea dip wasn’t the reason he took us there.
“They had pet pigs and people whittling on the front porch.”
For a moment, Tom allows himself a small chuckle before directing me on the mental tour of his childhood’s downtown. “If we were good, we’d walk over to Quarles Hardware (where the Hard Rock is now) and then to the Woolworth’s, where my mother would buy us a chocolate shake….
“The reason my big toes are crooked now probably is because once a year, we’d get new shoes at Stride Rite on Church Street. It was like a decent shoe … a good shoe store.”
The 62-year-old’s loving soliloquy continues. “Harvey’s had this guy who walked around on stilts. And they had monkeys.
“The kids’ store in the basement of Harvey’s was like going to Disney World.”
He halts his happy recitation of Music City memories to talk briefly about a recent “Street Level” column he read, the one in which I visited Colonel Tom Parker’s house on Gallatin Road as it was being prepped for demolition.
“It breaks my heart when Colonel Tom’s house is torn down to make way for a car wash. When I was a kid, going to school, I’d ask my mother how we were going to get there. She answered: ‘The Shoe-Leather Express,’ meaning we were going to walk.
“That took us right past Colonel Parker’s house. If he was there, he’d wave and give us a nickel…. Back then that was a lot of money.”
He wasn’t able to save the home from which the Colonel engineered Elvis’ career (and where Elvis stayed when he was in Nashville), but his shoe-leather memories do drive his attempts at salvation as much of Nashville history as possible.
“Those kinds of things stuck with me. And as an entrepreneur, you have an opportunity to say something, to do something….
“The Woolworth is worth saving,” he says. “Those things have been woven in me. And as things are gentrified, the new people coming in don’t have any history around here, so it’s not important to them.”
“The curse of the It City” shoots condos into the sky and has tall-skinny houses chasing the less-affluent from their homes due to skyrocketing rent and property taxes.
Also, figuring in is his own resistance to racism. “I’m dark-complected (due to an All-American mix of Latino and European heritage). I’ve always been sensitive to that. When I was a freshman playing football at Auburn, I couldn’t find my locker.
“I asked my coach, and he sent me to a smaller locker room that had nine black guys and one Morales in it.
“I have taken (those memories and feelings) through life and, when the opportunity came (to help revive the Woolworth’s building), I thought there was no bigger challenge.
“The tribute we are going to do is restore the building to show its historic significance. We are going to save what we can save and things that need a redo, we’ll do them.”
He adds he was an easy enlistee in this effort. “The idea that here this building is. Dollar General (most-recent tenant) was just a cover-up. They put ply board over everything rather than tear them out. We pulled it out.”
Unmasking the building’s hidden and segregated past is a personal goal, he points out. “We have to say ‘this is what happened here.’”
It was here that segregation and hatred were dealt a blow and the civil rights movement was nurtured inside at the lunch counter and on the sidewalks and street outside.
The place must be restored and become a “welcome mat” to the city, says Morales, the history enthusiast and preservationist.
“I think the only enemy to our future is ourselves. If we sell out and become ‘Any Tourist Town, America,’ and lose our sense of who we are, well, that would be bad.”
The desire to save our heritage is being dealt painful, if not deadly, blows by wrecking balls at work beneath the beloved “Nashville Skyline” that was celebrated by a Bob Dylan masterpiece and that lives in Tom’s mind’s-eye.
Portenders of what has made our city great came not just from the activities on Fifth Avenue North but also in the world-changing work that was spawned. These sit-ins fueled some students to become “Freedom Riders” and go into the Deep South, where MLK’s peaceful philosophy and love-thy-neighbor ideology was challenged by attack dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs.
You can’t erase history, but you can learn from it. And, basically, Tom wants this store to be a living monument to the ideas that were nurtured at the old First Baptist Church Capitol Hill on 8th Ave. North and Cedar Street (now Charlotte) and carried out at the five-and-dime.
Ernest Rip Patton, 77, “joined the movement in 1959,” he says, because he believed that as a Nashvillian, it was his duty to help “clean things up.”
Now a retired auto transporter, he was a student at what’s now Tennessee State University, as well as a hard-working drummer in Three Soul and various jazz combos that held court and raised audiences’ feet at the Zanzibar and other clubs over on Jefferson Street, a few blocks north of downtown … and a world removed from prevailing downtown attitudes.
“There was no segregation over on Jefferson Street,” Rip adds. “White people – students from Vanderbilt and others – came to the clubs.
“It didn’t matter what color you were. You just went there to hear the music.”
He defines his own attitudes by using his family as illustration.
“One of the things I started to think about was that our parents and grandparents could go in the stores, but they couldn’t sit down (at their lunch-counters) and eat.
“Colored people could not try shoes on or try on dresses.”
Black feet weren’t welcomed in the same metal Brannock Devices salesmen used to tickle white feet and discover shoe sizes. Mothers had to hold clothes up to their children to see if they might fit because black people couldn’t use the “white” dressing rooms to try them on.
“My story started when I was in elementary school and my mother took me to the Lowe’s movie theater at Sixth and Church,” after his best friend, a white kid from the neighborhood, told him how good the movie was.
“We were playmates. We lived in that area down near where Swett’s is. We didn’t know anything about segregation.”
One of Rip’s biggest life lessons came when his mother steered him toward the movie house’s “colored entrance.”
“I was ready to go in the front door. That’s where all the excitement was, but I couldn’t.”
Sure, he went on in and saw the movie – “I’m sure it was a Western, because my friend and I liked to play cowboys and Indians” – but that humiliation stuck with him.
“Fast forward to 1959, I joined the movement. I never forgot the fact that as a young child I couldn’t get in the front door at the movies,” he remembers.
Civil rights activists were descending on his town. “I thought, ‘well, Nashville is my home. Why should they do all the cleaning up?’”
Calling himself “a foot soldier in the civil rights movement – that’s what they called people who were out there as a part of the sit-in movement and the walks (freedom marches)” – he was not among those inside the Nashville stores at the time of the sit-ins.
Instead, he was a lookout posted on Fifth.
He and his colleagues had pockets filled with change to get to the telephone to report back to First Baptist Church Capitol Hill about arrests or whatever else was happening at the sit-ins.
“It wasn’t that far, on Eighth and Cedar, and if I couldn’t get to a phone, I’d just run back to the church,” he says.
He explains the basic strategy of the sit-ins. “Say, if the Walgreen’s had five stools at the counter, then we’d fill those seats. We might have 20 or 25 people assigned to that store. If one group was arrested, five more were there to take their places” at the lunch counters.
Rip was not among the young people arrested in Nashville.
But, he wasn’t done challenging Jim Crow ignorance and hatred. He joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and was beaten and then jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, for a couple of months. He was among the 14 Freedom Riders who were Tennessee A&I students expelled upon return to campus.
Rip, who does a fair amount of public speaking around the country, has no regrets about what he and the others did or the pain they suffered.
“Nashville was the first city to open its lunch counters as a result of sit-ins. Those lunch counters were opened May 10 of 1960.”
That, of course, heralded the gradual arrival of integration.
The preservation and restoration at Woolworth makes him smile. “I’m all for it, because when you think about it, what do we have in downtown Nashville that represents 1960?
“I have to go to Memphis or Atlanta or Birmingham to see what happened in Nashville,” he adds, noting, though, that there is a good representation in the collection at the main library on Church Street – about two long blocks from the Wollworth’s. (FYI: That’s where Ledger art director Leigh Singleton got the vintage photo that goes with this story.)
“But a lot of people don’t know to go to the library,” Rip says, adding that another monument to the struggle, the Witness Walls art project, was dedicated a week ago at Public Square Park.
But this old Wollworth’s is an actual, historic location where change was seeded, and bringing it back is important to Rip.
As for Tom, well, he says he has taken the lessons he learned in his own youth through his life.
“The opportunity came about to do Wooworth on 5th. I thought there was no more significant project in Nashville than that.
“It was the site of life-changing and community-changing events….
“I have that in my blood. Some things you do with a business plan. Some out of love.”