Race Relations in America and Woolworth's

Sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, raised questions on race relations in America that helped end oppressive Jm Crow laws legalizing brutality, segregation and disenfranchisement in the United States.
Sit-in at Woolworth's
Sit-in at Woolworth's
Nov. 29, 2010 - PRLog -- Frank Winfield Woolworth started F..W. Woolworth & Company in 1878 with a $300 loan. Through a “five and dime” concept, he became one of the nation’s largest retailers and changed forever how Americans shop.

However, when the storekeeper opened his first store, the tight racist grip of Jim Crow was around the neck of the United States and it is no wonder that Woolworth's and most other facilities in America were segregated under the veil of 'separate but equal,' a legal doctrine in United States Constitutional law justifing a system of segregation of services, facilities and public accommodations by race, as long as the conditions for each group remained equal.

Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later known as Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, sat down at the lunch counter in the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth's on February 1, 1960, and sparked a nationwide challenge of Jim Crow laws, 'separate but equal' pretentions and segregation in the United States.

"The Woolworth's sit-ins were a significant event in our nation and had a major impact on my people," said Sunny Nash, award-winning author of Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s. "I was a child when all of this was going on, but I was old enough to see the changes taking place around me. We had a television but southern stations didn't regularly broadcast these types of events. When we heard what was going on at Woolworth stores around the nation, my mother and I stopped shopping there. Bigmama never shopped there."

Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s (Texas A&M University Press) by Sunny Nash, chosen by the Association of American University Presses as one of its essential books for understanding race relations in America, is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center in New York and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

Nash’s grandmother, Bigmama, whom she writes about in her book with emotion and humor, did not shop at Woolworth’s for a couple of reasons, according to Nash. “Bigmama didn’t trust the quality of anything that cost a nickel or a dime and she didn’t like the idea that she, as a woman of part Native American and African American heritage, didn’t have full access to everything in the store available to other customers.”

Native Americans are the most harshly affected by institutionalized racism, according to Worldwatch Institute, which notes that "317 reservations are threatened by environmental hazards. While formal equality has been legally granted, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders remain among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the country, and suffer from high levels of alcoholism and suicide."

"It is amazing that Woolworth's survived the 1960 sit-ins", Nash said. "The last Woolworth's closed in 1997 and some people in audiences where I have spoken blamed my book. I assured them that the closing of Woolworth's had a lot more to do with other discount stores than my book. Competition from retail outlets like Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target, which all made their appearances in 1962, the same year that Woolworth’s began expanding, killed Woolworth’s."  

Below is an excerpt from the essay, “My Grandmother’s Sit-in,” from Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, included in Glencoe Literature: the reader's choice. In the essay, Nash and Bigmama visit a relative at Navasota Hospital:

Afraid that my grandmother and I would be arrested or worse, my blood ran cold sitting under the “White Only” sign. I was proud and ashamed at the same time but too terrified to look up and see other people watching us.

“I was about your age when the Supreme Court used the railroad to legalize what they called ‘separate but equal,’” Bigmama said. “It was 1896. Plessy v. Ferguson made things separate, but it sure didn’t make them equal.”

Bigmama shifted in her chair and looked at me, whispering, “All Mr. Plessy wanted was a first-class train ticket. Well he could spend first-class money on a first-class ticket, but Jim Crow said he couldn’t put his black behind in a first-class seat.”

“Who’s Jim Crow?” I asked.

“A minstrel show character with a shiny black painted face and big white lips,” Bigmama said, glancing up at the sign. “Two nations under God, one ‘white only’ and the other one ‘colored.’ They wrote laws to keep us from using their restrooms, drinking from their water fountains, trying on clothes in a store, eating with them, going to school with them, marrying them and being buried under the same dirt with them.”

“Was Jim Crow before or after the South lost their war?” I asked softly, hardly breathing.

"The North may have won the Civil War in the history books, but the South didn’t lose,” whispered Bigmama, smiling with a frown between her eyes as she often did. “The North gave the South everything the South was fighting to keep; because the North, the South, the West and the East all wanted the same thing—us in a low place.” My grandmother got up, smoothed her coat, and politely nodded to the other stunned hospital guests. “I’m going now,” she said. “I never stay long where I’m not wanted.”

When the four well-dressed college students sat down at the segregated lunch counter in the Greensboro Woolworth’s and asked politely to be served, they stayed as long as it took to challenge Jim Crow. Their persistence to be served every day following the first caused other students, including white students, to join them. As news spread over the nation, similar actions were repeated in cities across America, bringing down the old Jim Crow laws, representing segregation and overt discrimination against non-white Americans.

"Woolworth's finally integrated its lunch counter," Nash said, "Because they and other downtown merchants were losing so much money during the sit-ins with lunch counter closings and nobody shopping because of demonstrations."

Below in a video, Nash introduces her book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s.

"Segregation was a way of life," Nash said, "until everyone got tired of it. I don't mean black people only. Many white people were tired of that way of life, too. That's why so many joined protests, years before the Woolworth's sit-ins, starting with the 1954 Brown Decision and the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott."

Rosa Parks wrote about refusing to give up her seat and igniting the bus boycott. “People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired,” Parks said. “But that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

During the boycott, workers walked and found other means to get to their jobs. Many were  domestic workers in the homes of white oppressors. In some cases, however, the wives of white oppressors took an active role in transporting black employees to work and not just the ones who worked in their own homes. Using their cars, white housewives became reliable support for the Montgomery bus boycott, lending valuable assistance to its success and getting into legal trouble for their efforts.

"I'm not saying everyone has changed and we are all living happily without prejudice ever after," Nash said. "I am saying that we must go the rest of the journey in all human relations, including those having to do with race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, physical ability and economic status."
Visit Sunny Nash's blog, http://sunnynash.blogspot.com, for information, videos, links on race relations in America. Buy Sunny Nash's book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, at: http://sunnynash.blogspot.com/p/bigmama-didnt-shop-at-woo...

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About Sunny Nash: Author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, Sunny Nash is an award-winning writer, photographer, producer and public speaker. Her work appears in the African American National Biography by Harvard and Oxford; African American West, A Century of Short Stories; Reflections in Black, A History of Black Photography 1840 - Present; Ancestry Magazine; Companion to Southern Literature; Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy; African American Foodways; Southwestern American Literature Journal and other anthologies. Nash is listed in references: The Source: a guidebook to American genealogy; Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies; Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics; Ebony Magazine; Southern Exposure; Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places; and others.
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Page Updated Last on: Feb 10, 2011

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