John Shearer: Remembering The 1960 Sit-Ins And The Disappearance Of The Dime Stores Involved

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 - by John Shearer

Seeing about the remembrances at St. Paul AME Church and the participation by some current Howard High students regarding the 60th anniversary of the local sit-in movement started me thinking about a story I wrote during a past anniversary.


It also made me think about the disappearance of all of those downtown Chattanooga dime stores that were important in both Chattanooga’s commercial and – with the sit-ins -- cultural history.


Knowing the 30th anniversary was coming up in 1990 when I was 30 years old and was working at the Chattanooga News-Free Press, I had gone back at the time and looked at some old newspaper stories from 1960.

What I discovered was that while the sit-in strategy was a generally quieter movement around the country, it became briefly tense here in Chattanooga.


The sit-ins had occurred during the middle of that golden age of the civil rights movement from 1955-65, when many gains were made toward equal rights and full accessibility in all public places in the United States.


But while many of the movements and events at that time were adult led, this one – which was designed to integrate the segregated lunch counters -- was uniquely led by college and high school students. It had started on Jan. 31, 1960, when Joseph McNeil, a student at North Carolina A&T college in Greensboro, had tried to get food at a bus terminal restaurant and was denied.


He told some classmates about what happened, and they decided to go back the next day to a Woolworth’s in Greensboro and try to be served at the lunch counter there. This was at a time when blacks in the South could not sit down and eat at many such places.


Word quickly spread around the country, and others followed in trying to integrate the eateries.  


Having followed such events in Chattanooga, about 30 male and female students at Howard High School on Friday, Feb. 19, 1960, traveled after school ended from the campus at 2500 S. Market St. 18 blocks to Woolworth’s at 729 Market St. 


According to the newspaper reports at the time, Woolworth’s immediately closed, so they walked to McLellan’s dime store nearby at 711 Market St. and it closed as well. However, they stayed at that place for 40 minutes.


A crowd that included five policemen soon gathered around them at McLellan’s, but no incidents or arrests occurred. One white person could even be seen talking congenially to the black students.


Despite this lack of much excitement, the day of reckoning for Chattanooga to be made socially whole was about to arrive, and the city would never be the same again.


In short, the walls of segregation were about to be broken.


But it would not be easy, and one can only imagine the contrasting feelings of fear and courage among the black youngsters.


That first day, little excitement seemed to have happened, but it was soon to pick up.


On Monday, Feb. 22, some 200 black students returned, and this time they went to all four major dime stores in downtown Chattanooga, including W.T. Grant at 715 Market St. and Kress’s across Market Street in the 800 block. Kress’ actually already had segregated seating for blacks in a designated area.


A check in the Chattanooga city directory from 1960 shows that the managers of the stores that year were R.A. Mersereau at W.T. Grant, R.V. Thacker at Kress’, W.W. Stack at McLellan’s and Herbert T. Zeilke, who would manage the downtown Woolworth’s for 29 years.


Needless to say, the black students’ arrival on Monday afternoon drew more attention than the Friday before from some white youngsters, a number of whom were probably not quite ready for full integration or had not thought fully about equal rights for all. The black students were jeered by them, and some of the white students took their seats in the luncheonettes, the paper said.


The next day, Tuesday, Feb. 23, a crowd again gathered at Kress’ and fights broke out and items were thrown as the store was closed.


The situation appeared to be getting more tense, even though police had been at each dime store. When 3,000 descended in the area near Kress’ on Wednesday, Feb. 24, authorities were ready to end any physical incidents by blacks or whites.


They had billy clubs and fire hoses on hand to prevent disturbances, but the day apparently passed without any serious incidents. As a result, what was described as Chattanooga’s worst racial crisis in decades soon passed without any more major incidents, and all students heeded warnings by authorities to stay away from the downtown area in subsequent days.


But a victory was eventually won for the black youngsters and people of color everywhere, as these dime store chains – many of which, like Woolworth’s and Kress’, were based in New York – soon opened their luncheonettes to everyone. They certainly did not want to lose money, and that along with their more nation-wide-focused perspectives of race relations soon resolved the situation.


In 1990, I had interviewed Leamon Pierce, who, like fellow public office holder JoAnne Favors, was a senior at Howard that year. He told me in reminiscence, “Without the sit-ins of the 1960s, it would be hard for anyone to project where blacks would be at this day and time.”


When I wrote that story in 1990, Kress’, Grant’s and McLellan’s had already disappeared from the downtown area. Woolworth’s was the only remaining place from 1960 and it still had a lunch counter and appeared to have changed little.


However, places like Wal-Mart, Target and the “dollar” stores mostly in the suburbs were slowly replacing all these traditional five-and-10-cent stores, even if they did not have luncheon places.


But the downtown Woolworth’s ended up closing in early 1994 after its luncheonette had ceased operating in October 1993. First Volunteer Bank rebricked and greatly remodeled the building, although the partially covered and formerly detailed columns from the Woolworth’s interior still stand in what is now a parking garage area. 


A Woolworth’s had been in downtown Chattanooga since shortly after the end of World War I, and that one with its red metal facing in recognition of F.W. Woolworth’s favorite color had been there since 1939.


The W.T. Grant store had been at the site since 1926, but it closed its downtown store in early 1963 as the suburbs were starting to become more popular for retail business. Grant also had stores at Highland Plaza and Brainerd Village, but they closed in 1975.


No stories on McLellan’s could be found in the news clipping files at the Chattanooga Public Library downtown, but city directories say it was at its site well before World World II and closed sometime in the mid-1960s, after it became McCrory, McLellan and Green.


Both were in the area where the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union now sits next to the tall First Horizon bank.


Kress’ had been built in the middle of the 800 block of Market Street stretching to Cherry Street, where some old buildings dating to the 1880s and once owned by Xenophon Wheeler formerly sat. Kress’ had opened there in November 1954 after being located at 706 Market St. since the 1890s.


The new Kress’ building designed by Lacy, Atherton and Davis architects featured a 60-stool restaurant. The building was torn down in the 1980s, and Miller Park Plaza was built at the site.


I remember going into Kress’ with my mother, Velma Shearer, some in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, and I recall that it already seemed old or antiquated looking to me, even though it dated to only the 1950s. And there was something about that old feeling that I found appealing, even at a young age.


Lunch counters were an important part of businesses in downtown for a period, with all the shoppers and businesspeople. It was an easy and relatively inexpensive way to get a quick lunch during a short lunch break.


The department stores also had them, and I remember eating at the Lovemans/Proffitt’s luncheonette in the basement in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, and l loved the spaghetti.


Area drug stores also had lunch counters at that time, and I remember eating a grilled cheese regularly at the Rivermont pharmacy by Red Food Store in the late 1960s and early 1970s when coming home from Bright School.


If I tried to have a mid-afternoon snack like that today, I would not only gain weight, I probably would not be hungry for supper until 9 p.m.


Regarding the Woolworth’s lunch counter, I also finally went into it and ate one or two times not too long before it closed. The food was nothing special, if I remember, but the experience was quite worthwhile realizing I could see basically the same surroundings that generations before had seen countless times and blacks in 1960 were seeing for the first time.

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