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International Civil Rights Center and Museum

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F. W. Woolworth Department Store
1929, Charles C. Hartmann; 2010 renovation, Freelon Group. 134 S. Elm St.

The former F.W. Woolworth Department Store, now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, was the site of the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, a series of nonviolent protests that were among the most influential events in the civil rights movement. Located on a prominent corner in Greensboro, on South Elm and Sycamore (now West February 1 Place) streets, the Art Deco building was social hub for white citizens. Although African Americans were permitted to shop in the store, they were not allowed at the store’s lunch counter.

F.W. Woolworth Company was an internationally successful retail outlet and pioneer of the five-and-dime variety store chains in the United States. Greensboro’s store was designed and built in 1929 by Charles C. Hartmann, a New York architect who had relocated to town in 1921 to build the Jefferson Standard Building. Hartmann became one of Greensboro’s most prolific modern architects, and his first two commercial commissions bookend a period of immense urban development as the city’s population increased from roughly 20,000 in 1920 to more than 53,500 in 1929.

The two-story building extends six bays along Elm Street and eight bays along Sycamore Street, with the corner bays slightly wider and emphasized by a peaked cornice with acroteria in the middle and on either side. First-floor bays are defined by fluted pilasters resting on granite bases, above which is the classic red and gold Woolworth sign topped by Greek acroteria. Second-story bays are defined by Chicago-style windows with scalloped upper trim as well as granite urns inserted into the building cornice. The interior is decorated with terrazzo floors, plaster coffered ceilings, and an Art Deco stair.

On February 1, 1960, after paying for toothpaste and other provisions, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College for African Americans sat down at the whites-only lunch counter, ordered coffee, and began a revolution. The students were refused service but returned the next day with nineteen supporters and then, by the end of the week, with 400. The media attention garnered by the quiet acts of these young men spurred a movement across the south, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized two months later at Shaw University in Raleigh. The Greensboro sit-ins were so central to the civil rights movement that in 1993 the Smithsonian Institution acquired a four-seat section for permanent display in the National Museum of American History.

In 2010, the Freelon Group restored the Woolworth Building and converted it into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The firm went on to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2012–2016) in Washington, D.C.

References

Bishir, Catherine W., and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003, 226.

Fripp, Gayle Hicks. Greensboro: A Chosen Center. Sun Valley, C.A.: American Historical Pres, 2001.

Manieri, Ray, “Downtown Greensboro Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1982. Amended in 2004 by Laura A.W. Phillips. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Henry Brian Cheek
Nicholas Serrano
Coordinator: 
Kristen Schaffer
David Hill
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Data

Timeline

  • 1929

    Built

What's Nearby

Citation

Henry Brian Cheek, Nicholas Serrano, "International Civil Rights Center and Museum", [Greensboro, North Carolina], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/NC-01-081-0084.

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