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Civil rights trail

Nashville’s historic Woolworth building is in trouble

And not the good kind.

Women at a roped-off lunch counter stage a sit down to protest segregation in Nashville, Tennessee, March 26, 1960.Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

It’s hard to imagine any measure that wouldn’t classify the building at 221-223 Rep. John Lewis Way North in Nashville as historic. Formerly the site of a Woolworth Department Store lunch counter, it was also the place John Lewis first was arrested in what became his life-long pursuit of civil rights equity. The student-led sit-ins there, and elsewhere, in Nashville helped lead to desegregation of restaurants across the country.

Since February 1960, things have changed, and things have remained the same.

In 2020, Nashville’s Metro Council renamed Fifth Avenue, where this particular building sits, Rep. John Lewis Way. But not everyone values holding space for the experiences that collectively shape our lives, including the sit-ins. What’s happened at and to this building is emblematic of activities nationwide that have prioritized real estate and development over informed placemaking.

As the current tenants of the Woolworth building turn their back on its history, it is just one example of how and why the country is ending up with blocks populated with signs explaining what used to be on those spots, rather than adapting and reusing landmarks in ways that weave the narrative into a new use.

“It is hard to go to Atlanta and find even one civil rights’ building still standing,” laments Lee Sentell, founder of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which launched in 2018 as a way for Southern states to educate the public about its past.

Sign marking the civil rights sit-ins outside the Woolworth building in Nashville, Tennessee.Deborah D. Douglas

Back in 2015, it looked like things were going to go a different way in Nashville. The Woolworth building was purchased for $3.4 million by a trust headed by a local hospitality entrepreneur. Nashville restaurateur Tom Morales converted the two lower floors into Woolworth on Fifth, a restaurant with a replica of the lunch counter designed to educate the public about the sit-ins. It featured historic video, photographs and programming. It opened in 2018 and closed before the pandemic in 2020.

Morales, who grew up in Nashville and no longer owns a stake in the building or any of the projects housed there, was pained to see the artifacts he collected, preserved or replicated, trashed when the Woolworth Theatre began remodeling.

When Historic Nashville, Inc. included the Woolworth building on its annual list of endangered properties in 2021 (the same list that cited Nashville’s Elks Lodge #1102 as being at risk), it issued a statement that read: “We recommend that they bring in [an expert] with a specialization in the Civil Rights Movement or Black Freedom Struggle, a trained historic preservationist, and a conservator who can assist with the identification and care of the building’s remaining historic elements.”

That did not happen.

Owners of the building, who did not respond to requests for interviews, leased the bottom two floors, that once housed the historic lunch counter, to an entity building a theater and developing “Shiners,” a Las Vegas-style show, complete with treatments some viewers have found problematic, with content insensitive to LGBTQ+ audiences as well as audiences of color.

In October 2022, Woolworth Theatre rented its space to the team who screened the one-night premiere of “The Greatest Lie Ever Sold: George Floyd and the Rise of BLM,” the controversial film directed by Candace Owens for Daily Wire. Ye, the performer formerly named Kayne West, attended the event, and his presence, just weeks after a round of antisemitic statements, along with the content of the film itself, seemed, to many, antithetical to the history of the building.

Exterior of the Woolworth building in Jan. 2020.Deborah D. Douglas

In 1983, the Woolworth building was one of 28 structures included as part of an application for Fifth Avenue Historic District status; the building was awarded that status as part of the group, not on its own.

The building does feature a display window with one of the lunch counter’s original stools and some John Lewis artifacts but no connection from what is currently being performed to the building’s history and no pre-performance land acknowledgements.

Woolworth Theatre CEO and country music artist Chuck Wicks did not respond to requests to be interviewed on this topic. After the Owens event, the theater did issue a statement which reads, in part:

“The Woolworth Theatre does not comment on the functions, content, or the guest lists of our clients for private events. The Woolworth Theatre, similar to most event venues in the world, doesn’t make it a business practice to review client guest lists for third-party events. Any comments on any of those items should be directed to the principles of said events.”

Even with the pushback to the one-two-three punch of the changes to the historical décor, the “Shiners” content, and the Owens screening, Woolworth Theatre management seems not to have been convinced that history matters, but instead to have doubled down on racism since the initial concerns. For their New Year’s Eve festivities on Dec. 31, 2022 they hired Jax Taylor and Brittany Cartwright to host. The reality TV celebrity couple were dismissed from Bravo after past racist and transphobic statements surfaced.

Of course, such tunnel vision is not only taking place in Nashville.

In Smyrna, Georgia, Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was torn down rather than be used to educate on the casually racist stereotypes that were once ubiquitous or the real-life accomplishments of Fanny Williams, the Black cook for the White family that owned the restaurant. In New Iberia, Louisiana, The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working with the community to collect and digitize records of Black life that have long been overlooked in historical accounts of the region.

“Downtown Nashville has been revitalized, but people need to understand the overall story,” adds Carole Bucy, Davidson County historian. “It is a problem if we cannot make this history more accessible.”

Margaret Littman is a journalist who tells the stories of the people and places of the South. She’s the author of several Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Nashville to New Orleans Road Trip along the historic Natchez Trace and 52 Things to Do in Nashville. Follow her on socials at @littmanwrites.