(Photo credit: Greensboro Lunch Counter, courtesy Wally Gobetz, Flickr Creative Commons)
To me, lunch counters have always seemed quintessentially American. We didn’t have them back home. I don’t think too many countries have ever had them. But in the United States these long, formica-covered counters where patrons sit on one side and servers and food preparers work on the other, are everywhere. The whole concept always seemed fundamentally odd to me, even as a kid: Wouldn’t it just feel weird eating and drinking at a spot where a server stood working right in front of you, just two or three feet away? I could deal with the idea of drinking a shake or a Coke—sorry, a soda—at a diner counter, but lunch? At the same time, I found the whole idea intriguing. In some strange way I couldn’t come close to articulating, lunch counters somehow summed up much about life in America. I think Norman Rockwell was to blame for that.
Back in the 1950s lunch counters were even more ubiquitous than they are today, and they weren’t confined to restaurants or diners. They had also colonized those downtown mini-department stores and retail variety stores that Americans once called “five and dimes”—another term that conjures up quaint Americana in spades. These stores used to be found in every main street in every halfway decent-sized town in the United States, and carried once-famous names such as Newberry, McCrory, and S.S. Kresge. They carried all sorts of cheap consumer goods, and you could grab a decent bite to eat there as well. The most famous national brand, and the progenitor of the whole concept, was F.W. Woolworth. These establishments emerged from dry goods stores in the late 19th century and by the early 20th century had spread across the country. Today, the notion of the five and dime brims with nostalgia for a supposedly better, simpler time in small-town America. It harks back to an age when main streets were dynamic and bustling centers of activity for the community, before they’d been destroyed by suburban malls and Wal-Marts.
So yes, lunch counters seem like a quaint piece of early 20th century Americana, and I love them for that. But as with so much of the iconography of Americana, the ugly shadow of racism has tainted our memory of lunch counters and their place in the culture. And when I say lunch counters, I’m really thinking about one lunch counter in particular: the one that once stood in the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina.
All this was going through my head the first time I stood in front of a section of the Greensboro Lunch Counter now on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. What was a piece of lunch counter doing at a prime location in one of the United States’ greatest national museums? It wasn’t there to celebrate America’s culinary traditions. Nope, it was there to help us remember the scourge of 20th century segregation, and to celebrate and commemorate a group of young African-American men who stood up to that segregation.
The story should be familiar to American adults and to schoolchildren, who for the most part are still immersed in the Civil Rights era even when so much of their country’s history is neglected or underplayed at school. In February 1960, four African-American students from a local technical college entered the Woolworth store in Greensboro and sat down on four seats at the lunch counter—the four seats now in the Smithsonian—and asked to be served. Now, because they were black and they were sitting at a section of the counter marked “whites only,” and because racial segregation was still legal in the United States at the time, they were refused service and asked to leave. They refused to leave and determined to stay seated until they were served. They weren’t served. They waited until the store closed then left. The next day the men returned with a larger group of 25 fellow students and continued the protest at the lunch counter. Soon hundreds more joined in. The sit-in continued for weeks and months, even after some of the students were arrested for trespassing. Eventually the Greensboro store backed down from its segregation policy. The protest expanded into a broader boycott of other stores across the South that enforced segregated lunch counters. These protests placed the national spotlight on the issue of segregation and helped lead to the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act, in 1964.
When the Greensboro Woolworth’s closed in 1993, the company donated the lunch counter section to the Smithsonian. Although it’s not a statue or a sculpture, this section now stands as a key memorial to the biggest cultural struggle of the late 20th century. So it’s not going to be stuck off to one side of America’s greatest history museum. Instead, it’s been given a place of prominence worthy of its provenance. The Smithsonian has decided to make it one of its “landmark objects” for the 2nd floor east wing. You can’t miss it.
The display itself looks pretty cool. It consists of a section of counter, a serving hatch, and four swivel chairs, alternately colored pink and baby blue, each with a single metal column bolted into the floor. The whole ensemble is a wonderful mix of mid-20th century chrome, stainless steel, and wood paneling. Even displaced from its original setting, it still retains that aura of bright optimism that has always defined mid-20th century America in my mind. Why did racism have to intrude—as it so often did—to undermine that optimism? And how can something that looks so darned adorable represent an institution as repugnant as segregation?
It was an odd feeling looking at such a simple and unusual memorial, which now represents not only a major victory in the struggle for civil rights but also a culinary tradition that has almost disappeared and an indicator of deeper and divisive economic changes in America. All these elements are connected. Downtown lunch counters were once points of contact for all kinds of people from all kinds of economic backgrounds. Even when they were segregated, they provided a common space for the community. Five and dime lunch counters began disappearing in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the downtown five and dimes themselves, to be replaced by McDonalds and Burger Kings and food courts in suburban shopping malls.
It’s sad to consider that a contributing factor to the demise of many of these stores, and to the downtown shopping areas they helped to invigorate, was the white flight that followed on from the end of official and unofficial segregation, both in the South and the North, in the 1960s. While Greensboro has done reasonably well for itself in recent years, many, many towns and cities across America haven’t, and the main cause of urban degradation has been the loss of tax revenue from middle-class (usually white) families baling out from the old cities. We can’t discount the racial factor in prompting many of these folks to head for the suburbs, where taxes were lower, life was perceived to be safer and nicer, and most of their new neighbors looked like them. That is a sad reflection on a big chapter in late 20th century American history, whose effects remain with us today.
18 objects that define America. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-objects-that-define-america/2013/10/25/3166cf04-3d04-11e3-a94f-b58017bfee6c_gallery.html?tid=pm_gal&wpisrc=nl_most#photo=8
Marti Attoun (2010). Five & Dime Stores. American Profile. Available at http://americanprofile.com/articles/five-and-dime-stores-offer-step-back-in-time/
William Henry Chafe (1981). Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.
Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-in. Library of Congress. Available at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/odyssey/educate/lunch.html
What 101 objects define America? CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50157911n