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June 3, 2014

Woolworth building reflects civil rights fight

Haverhill lunch counter sent south for historical display

HAVERHILL — For years, the chrome-backed swiveling stools and lunch counter inside the downtown Woolworth building gathered dust as the roof of the building rotted.

Now, some of these artifacts of a bygone era are bound for a museum in Mississippi. The museum plans to tell the story of a civil rights sit-in that occurred at a very similar looking Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Jackson decades ago.

The sprawling 60-foot long counter at Haverhill’s F.W. Woolworth store would have attracted people of all races at that time in history. They could sit side-by-side and enjoy ice-cream sodas and frappes, sandwiches, hot dogs and other lunch items.

That would have been in marked contrast to what happened inside the Jackson F.W. Woolworth store on May 28, 1963, when a civil rights sit-in at the segregated “whites only” lunch counter turned ugly and violent.

A small group of white and black students and teachers from Tougaloo College in Jackson staged a peaceful sit-in at the lunch counter when an angry white mob attacked them. The mob poured ketchup and sugar and mustard on them in protest, and eventually began punching and kicking some of them. It was a historic moment in the fight for civil rights. The next year, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed into law.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer” — the name given to a campaign launched in June 1964 to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi.

To commemorate the event, the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson, Mississippi, plans to create an exhibit focusing on that 1963 sit-in.

“We’re trying to physically recreate that day,” said Kenyatta Stewart, a curator who oversees exhibits for the Smith Robertson Museum.

Stewart said he was searching for original Woolworth artifacts when he discovered a recent Eagle-Tribune story about plans to demolish Haverhill’s downtown Woolworth building and replace it with a multi-use complex.

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