Woolworth's building gives way to Greenville's growth

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THE GREENVILLE NEWS/File

The Woolworth Building in downtown Greenville, as seen in this 1980 photo, was the location for lunch counter sit-ins by a group of black Greenville teenagers in 1960.


The walls of the Woolworth's are gone now, torn asunder by heavy machinery as the future of downtown Greenville presses forward.

The destruction was a long time coming — and in a way began half a century ago when the figurative walls that hid the darker sides of blissful five-and-dime Americana were chipped into by a group of youths who decided their exclusion from it shouldn't be the American way.

It was in 1960 — as the civil rights movement was heating up with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as its inspirational leader — that a group of black Greenville teenagers took their places on stools at the lunch counter of the store on East Washington and North Main streets.

They demanded equal treatment. They were met with resistance.

It was only the beginning — only one battle — for equality that spread through the South in the 1960s. All that's left now of the downtown Woolworth's building is the rubble and uncertain plans for what will take its place.

Now, say those involved in its desegregation 50 years ago, the memories of what happened behind its walls can't be forgotten.

"You can't erase history," said Ruth Ann Butler, one of the teens who sat on a Woolworth's stool in the protest. "You can't change the fact that the Woolworth's was what it was. It will be in the history books. It might not still be standing, but it will be."

The building had been abandoned for years, its lunch counters removed.

It was demolished by a group of investors led by John Boyd, chief executive of Greenville's TIC Properties.

The investors had planned a major development on the site with office space, shopping and a hotel in conjunction with an Atlanta-based real estate investment trust, but that plan fell apart during the recession, Boyd said.

"We're still looking to do a development," Boyd said. "We don't have a time frame."

In the meantime, Boyd said, grass will be planted and sidewalks built to create an open space for the public to use.

Demolition crews, he said, are scheduled to tear down another building the group owns on the same block, the former Young Fashions building, as well as a raised brick office building and staircase that form a bridge across Piazza Bergamo, the public square at the intersection of Main and Coffee streets.

The protesters involved in 1960 were young, largely because they had the least to lose, much like the Sterling High School students before them who marched on the Greenville County library and demanded integration.

Adults who believed in change but stood to lose their jobs supported the youths behind the iconic pictures of the sit-in, a local expression of the first Woolworth's sit-in at a store in Greensboro, N.C., said Xanthene Norris, a Greenville County councilwoman who with her husband helped assure the youths had money to buy something at the counter.

In Greensboro, a civil rights museum now is planned where the Woolworth's once stood.

In Greenville, the downtown corner where the demonstration and other acts of the civil rights era took place is marked by a bronze statue of two students from Sterling High School, the city's first all-black high school until it burned in 1967.

The statue was moved and put in storage to prevent damage during the demolition.

The statue — sculpted in 2006 — is the city's expression of remembrance for the Woolworth's sit-in, Mayor Knox White said.

The decision to have a statue wasn't a difficult one when a group of leaders met to decide how best to remember Greenville's civil rights history — but where to put it was, White said. Ultimately, the corner was named Sterling Square and the statue placed there.

"That's where we decided to try to tell that story," White said.

While plans for what will replace the Woolworth's are uncertain, the city has had conversations with the developer to incorporate some way to honor the sit-in, City Manager Jim Bourey said."They intend to do that in some fashion," Bourey said. "Exactly how hasn't been determined yet."

Eric Connor and Rudolph Bell

Source: THE GREENVILLE NEWS/File

In August 1960, black citizens protested segregated lunch counters at F.W. Woolworth's by staging a sit-in in downtown Greenville.