In the entrance of Woolworth on 5th, the newly revived restaurant in downtown Nashville, diners are greeted by a jubilant pink canvas depicting a black woman raising her arms in triumph beneath a single word: Freedom. The painting, by African American folk artist Missionary Mary L. Proctor, celebrates a new era at the former five-and-dime, one well aware of its fraught history. Starting in February 1960, peaceful student protestors—including John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, then a student at nearby Fisk University—took seats at the whites-only lunch counter. Facing harassment, violence, and arrests, the students persevered until the city desegregated its lunch counters that May.
Today, patrons who slide onto stools at the rebuilt counter, which spans the length of the dining room, “are really sitting in a time capsule that is black history,” says Woolworth owner and local restaurateur Tom Morales. “When Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay came in and sat at the counter, Ava said, ‘I can just feel the energy in here.’”
Dishes like a blackened fish with potlikker beurre blanc (a sauce that incorporates leftover broth from cooked greens) and squash fritter po’boys trace the evolution of soul food. In the restaurant’s previously unused basement, the New Era Ballroom pays homage to the Jefferson Street corridor, Nashville’s midcentury epicenter of black culture (which attracted then up-and-comers like Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix) with live funk, gospel, and swing performances. On the mezzanine—once home to the “colored counter” and now a lounge bar serving soda-fountain–inspired cocktails, including a boozy chocolate shake—black-and-white photos of the sit-ins hang above the original tile backsplash, uncovered during renovations along with terrazzo flooring, crown molding, gilded handrails, and “whites only” signs. Above the bar there now hangs a different message: “You’re welcome at our table.”
Since opening last winter, the restaurant has become a place of healing. Morales recalls meeting a guest who’d participated in solidarity sit-ins in 1960s New York, where the lunch counters were integrated: “She showed me a picture of herself at 18 years old, holding a sign. And she started crying.” Morales’s drawl softens. “We are what they sat in for.”