Saturday, March 7, 2020

Nashville and the Lunch Counter Sit-Ins of 1960

By Michelle Shocklee

Nashville; photo from

Nashville, Tennessee is known for a lot of things. Music, entertainment, food. It also has a rich history that dates back to the 1500s when various Native American tribes roamed the land. But like most southern cities, Nashville also has a checkered past when it comes to racial issues and civil rights.

Prior to the Civil War, Tennessee experienced a 15% increase in the slave population between 1850 and 1860. By the latter year there were over 275,000 slaves in the state. When it came time to decide on secession, the majority of the population voted to secede from the Union, with the issue of slavery at the heart of the vote. 

Fast forward one hundred years and things haven't improved all that much. Although slavery was abolished in 1865, segregation continues in schools, public transportation, hotels, and in many places of business, including lunch counters found in stores like Woolworth's, Walgreens, and major departments stores. It's difficult to imagine being denied service based on ones race, but it was a common practice back then.

However, on February 1, 1960, four brave, black college students sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, where the official policy was to refuse service to anyone but whites. Denied service, the four young men refused to give up their seats. Police arrived on the scene but were unable to take action due to the lack of provocation. The Greensboro Four, as they were dubbed, stayed put until the store closed, then returned the next day with more students from local colleges.

Sit-in, Nashville lunch counter, 1960
Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (00651469)
By February 5, some 300 students had joined the protest at Woolworth’s, paralyzing the lunch counter and other local businesses. Heavy television coverage of the Greensboro sit-ins sparked a sit-in movement that spread quickly to college towns throughout the South and into the North, as young blacks and whites joined in various forms of peaceful protest against segregation in libraries, beaches, hotels and other establishments.

By the end of March, the movement had spread to 13 states and 55 cities, including Nashville. Though many were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, national media coverage of the sit-ins brought increasing attention to the civil rights movement.

Nashville's sit-in campaign targeted downtown lunch counters such 
as this one at Walgreens drugstore.
On February 13, 1960, twelve days after the Greensboro sit-ins occurred, college students entered S.H. Kress, Woolworth’s, and McClellan stores at 12:40 p.m. in downtown Nashville. After making their purchases at the stores, the students sat-in at the lunch counters. Store owners initially refused to serve the students and closed the counters, claiming it was their “moral right” to determine whom they would or would not serve. The students continued the sit-ins over the next three months, expanding their targets to include lunch counters at the Greyhound and Trailways bus terminals, Grant’s Variety Store, Walgreens, and major Nashville department stores, Cain-Sloan and Harvey.

The Nashville sit-ins lasted from February 13 to May 10, 1960. The campaign, coordinated by the Nashville Student Movement and the Nashville Christian Leadership Council, was notable for its early success and its emphasis on disciplined nonviolence. Over the course of the Nashville sit-in campaign, sit-ins were staged at numerous stores in the central business district. Sit-in participants, who mainly consisted of black college students, were often verbally or physically attacked by white onlookers. Despite their refusal to retaliate, over 150 students were eventually arrested for refusing to vacate store lunch counters when ordered to do so by police.

The first violent response to the protests came on February 27. The protesters that day were attacked by a group of white people opposing desegregation. The police arrested eighty-one protesters, but none of the attackers was arrested. Those arrested were found guilty of disorderly conduct. They all decided to serve time in jail rather than pay fines. On April 19, a bomb destroyed the home of Z. Alexander Lobby, the defense attorney representing many of the protesters. The bombing of Lobby’s home triggered a mass march to city hall where 2500 protesters demanded answers from Mayor West.

After weeks of secret negotiations between merchants and protest leaders, an agreement was finally reached. On May 10, six downtown stores opened their lunch counters to black customers for the first time. The customers arrived in groups of two or three during the afternoon and were served without incident. With that agreement, Nashville became the first major southern city to begin desegregating public facilities. The Nashville campaign became a model for other civil rights protests in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lunch counter in 2018 in the new Woolworth's on 5th
Photo from Google

Today, history, food, and entertainment have all come together in the form of a restaurant in the same location as the original store. Woolworth's on 5th offers a "welcome table" to everyone. Hubby and I haven't had a chance to eat there yet, but when we do, we'll remember the brave men and women who demanded respect and made it possible for all to be served.

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels including The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her new historical time-slip novel, Under the Tulip Tree, will release in September 2020.  Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. I love this account of perseverance. How timely that you feature this story. Did that Woolworth's survive the tornados? Thanks for posting.

  2. Thank you, Connie! Downtown Nashville escaped the wrath of the tornado, but those who didn't still need our prayers.