The history of lunch counter sit-ins in Greenville, SC


Vintage postcard of F.W. Woolworth’s | Screenshot from Greenville SC Natives

Do you remember the old F.W. Woolworth Company (a.k.a. Woolworth’s) store? It was located at the corner of North Main + West Washington streets in downtown GVL (after moving from its original spot in the Cleveland building on Main Street), and was a popular shopping destination for locals throughout the 20th century.

Though the store is sure to hold memories for many longtime Greenvillians, its lasting legacy isn’t its selection of inexpensive goods (everyday items were commonly priced at five or 10 cents), nor its wide variety of offerings (you could purchase a parakeet in its pet section for $11.99). Rather, Woolworth’s is remembered most for being the site of a landmark moment in the city’s Civil Rights movement.

Zooming out: Before there were shopping malls, there were discount stores, or ‘five-and-dime’ stores. And before there were food courts, there were lunch counters located inside those stores. The lunch counters served as a convenient place to grab a salad (30 cents) or a sandwich (50-65 cents)but only if you were white.

In 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States deemed this type of segregation to be unconstitutional, thanks in part to the efforts made by students from Greenville’s first Black high school.

Three Weeks of Demonstrations

In the late summer of 1960, a group of young Black students and alumni from Sterling High School (including then-college freshman Jesse Jackson) walked inside the Greenville County Public Library and began browsing books and newspapers. This wasn’t allowed, of course, as segregation was still prevalent in the South during this time. Rather than changing its policies, the library temporarily shut down. It quietly reopened as an integrated facility that September.

Following the library demonstrations — and inspired by a demonstration at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC — the group of activists began organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters at the Woolworth’s, S.S. Kress & Co., + the H.T. Grant’s stores downtown. Six sit-ins took place, as well as a number of protests held outside the stores.

The student protesters were arrested + charged with trespassing. Working with NAACP lawyers, the group appealed the charges — and the case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1963, the protesters finally prevailed, when SCOTUS judges reviewed that case (combined with three similar cases stemming from sit-ins around the South) + decided that it was unconstitutional to refuse service to someone because of their race.

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After sit-in arrests. | Clipping from the Greenville News, August 1960 via

A Lasting Legacy

In addition to desegregating the city’s lunch counters, the landmark case led to the integration of many other businesses around GVL. As for Woolworth’s? It, along with its fellow five-and-dime stores, remained open for decades, eventually shuttering in the 90s following the rise of shopping malls. While little evidence remains of the store itself today, a statue now sits outside its former location which honors the students of Sterling High School + their work in making Greenville a more welcoming city.

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Sterling High School monument located at the intersection of Washington and Main Streets | Photo via Greenville County Library System

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