By Mike LaBella
---- — 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.
“We want to educate people about the struggle for civil rights during that period of time,” Stewart added. “People worked together. It wasn’t just black people who fought for civil rights, it was white people too.”
Carbone said the Smith Robertson Museum is paying to remove a section of lunch counter and four stools, as well as the cost of shipping.
“We’ve had some suggestions as to what we can do with the rest, such as separate it into smaller sections and sell it to help generate money to restore the pieces we want to keep,” Carbone said.
Stewart said that during the Civil Rights Movement, sit-ins took place at F.W. Woolworth stores across the south.
“From our readings, they (sit-in participants) thought it would have a big impact to target Woolworths as they were so prominent,” Stewart said.
The F.W. Woolworth store on Merrimack Street in Haverhill opened in 1949 and closed in early 1970. A furniture company operated out of the building for about a year. A photograph of the lunch counter, taken around 1950, is the photo for the month of September in the Friends of the Haverhill Public Library 2014 calendar, which is available at the Friend’s Shop at the library, 99 Main St.
“Most of the soda fountain hardware is gone, but there are still things we may end up taking, or not, like a dishwasher and refrigerator, which are not usable but could be painted and turned into a display,” Carbone said. “That’s if we could get them out. They’re all connected with piping and wiring.”
Demolition of the dilapidated Woolworth building is scheduled for later this summer and will herald the start of major redevelopment of the eastern gateway to downtown.
In its place, a team that includes the Greater Haverhill Foundation and the Planning Office for Urban Affairs plans to develop the first of several mixed-use buildings along the river.
The signature tenant of the seven-story development that is to replace the Woolworth building, to be called Harbor Place, will be a satellite campus for UMass Lowell. The college plans to occupy the second and third floors of the new, glass-enclosed building.
Restaurants and retails shops will occupy the first floor of Harbor Place and there will be office space on upper floors.