NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Woolworth building in downtown Nashville, where Black civil rights leaders once defiantly sat at a segregated lunch counter that wouldn’t serve them, will soon celebrate the culture it once shunned by housing a soul food restaurant with live music.
Restaurant entrepreneur Tom Morales announced the project Wednesday inside the unfinished building at an unveiling. Soulful songs and powerful remarks about the building’s history echoed through the largely emptied structure lined with caution tape.
As construction cranes continue to fill Nashville’s growing skyline, Morales said it’s an act of love and responsibility to save the Woolworth building, reference its history and create the restaurant’s own identity. Woolworth on 5th is expected to open in late 2017. The building was most recently a Dollar General.
Mayor Megan Barry noted that civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, was first arrested in 1960 as a college student at a sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter. It would be the first arrest of dozens in Lewis’ fight for civil rights.
At that Woolworth sit-in, Lewis was punched in the ribs and saw someone put out a cigarette on the back of another protester, Barry said.
“Everything starts somewhere,” Barry said. “And for John Lewis, that first arrest actually happened right here, on this spot, when he sat at that segregated lunch counter inside Woolworth’s on February 27, 1960.”
The lunch counter will be rebuilt, as Morales looks to reshape the venue to look like it did in 1960. The restaurant will feature 1950s and 1960s rock and soul music, dancing, spoken word and plays. It’s a different type of offering in downtown, which is known for its strip of honky tonk bars.
“It is about time there was a place in downtown Nashville where you can get down downtown, boogie instead of boot scoot, if you will,” said Caroline Randall Williams, an accomplished author and poet.
Growing up with nine brothers and sisters, Morales said he remembers occasionally getting a milkshake at Woolworth. As a member of a Hispanic family, he said he also remembers being the only Morales in the phone book.
The well-known restaurateur revived the historic Acme Farm Supply building downtown, where he remembers his family getting his dog food. He created Acme Feed & Seed, a live music venue and eatery, and he has opened several other Nashville hotspots.
Meanwhile, as Nashville continues to grow, other historic sites, including music fixtures, have been torn down to make way for new construction.
“We can see the cranes all over the place. I can drive up the street and I don’t even know where I am anymore,” Morales said. “But the history is important to our identity.”