Woolworth Store Building, Clarksdale Mississippi

Date added: July 02, 2022 Categories: Mississippi Retail Department Store
Aerial view of facade (east), view to west (2006)

"Woolworth's," as the F.W. Woolworth Co. store was called, was the most significant element of most small-town downtowns across America throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the Clarksdale store was no exception. The F.W. Woolworth Co. was among the first five-and-dime stores, which sold discounted general merchandise at fixed prices, usually five or ten cents, undercutting the prices of small local merchants. It was also one of the first stores to put merchandise out for the shopping public to handle, select and purchase. In earlier shops, merchandise was kept behind the counter and customers presented the clerk with a list of items they wished to buy.

During the first half of the 20th century, the main street of virtually every town and city in the United States featured a Woolworth's, which were called dime stores, or five-and-dimes. Woolworth's maintained a central place in American life from before 1900 until after World War II, and was the original and dominant dime-store chain; it was the first place many people went to look for basic merchandise of all sorts. Woolworth's offered its customers a wide assortment of very affordable household items and the working class appreciated finding basic things at basic prices. Although part of Woolworth's appeal was in its ubiquitous presence, local stores were also encouraged to remain local institutions. They varied widely from region to region and from city to town. Each filled a particular role and developed its own character.

The Woolworth's opened its first Clarksdale store at 228 Yazoo Avenue in 1924. Advertisements at the time proclaimed the Woolworth's as "the Only Real 5 and 10 Cent Store in Clarksdale, Miss." In the phone directory Woolworth's was the sole listing under the heading "Five and Ten Cent Stores." The Woolworth continued to operate at 228 Yazoo Avenue in Clarksdale's main shopping district until 1955.

In 1955, the store moved down the block to 207 Yazoo Avenue. With great fanfare, the new Woolworth's opened in October 1955. The new building was larger than the previous store and was located on a prestigious corner lot. A newspaper article noted that the new Clarksdale store was "one of the most modern in the Woolworth Chain." In addition to the fireproof and air-conditioned structure, the new store offered other commercial innovations. The new store offered a self-service format where customers selected items from the shelves and paid at one of six checkout counters, five at the front of the store and one at the side entrance leading to East Second Street. A twenty-seven seat lunch counter was added. New lines of merchandise were offered, including goldfish and birds, and expanded choices for clothing and furniture.

City directories and the phone book no longer listed the Woolworth's as a "five and dime", but under the category of "Department Stores," which reflected the growth and evolution of Woolworth's, Clarksdale's downtown shopping district, and the attitudes and habits of the America public in the post-World War II era. By 1955, three "five and dime" stores were listed in the city directory, although none were in the prime Yazoo shopping district. The Woolworth's competed with fourteen other "department stores," although many were locally owned smaller operations. With the success of the new Woolworth's in its modern and air-conditioned space, its primary national competitor, J.C. Penney, built a new store across the street in 1962. These two larger stores anchored the Yazoo Avenue shopping district into the 1980s.

The population of Clarksdale grew rapidly in the post-war years. By 1955, the population of the city had grown to 19,598. The city was marketed as "North Mississippi's Most Progressive City." The role of the Woolworth's store in this campaign was highlighted by a radio advertisement that ran on WROX radio in 1955:

Announcer: Did you ask for evidence of progress in Clarksdale?
Voice: Yes, I did.

Announcer: Well, take example the F.W. Woolworth Company. They have been established in the same spot that they're in right now since January of 1924. But, if you look on the corner of Yazoo and Second Street you will notice construction underway. That's the brand new F.W. Woolworth $140,000 building under construction. Now they will have some brand new services for the City of Clarksdale and surrounding area. That's progress. F.W. Woolworth Company is progressing with North Mississippi's most progressive city, Clarksdale.

On October 25, 1955, the eve of the new store's opening, the entire front page of section two of the Clarksdale Press Register was devoted to the new store, citing the "handsome new $200,000 F.W. Woolworth store in the heart of downtown Clarksdale," as being "one of the most modern in the vast Woolworth chain." Indeed, the new store was a Classic example of the modern, International style of architecture, which was popular at the time. Modern architecture emerged in many Western countries in the decade after World War I. It was based on the "rational" use of modern materials, the principles of functionalist planning, and the rejection of historical precedent and ornament. Architects who worked in the International style wanted to break with architectural tradition and design simple, unornamented buildings with modern materials. The most commonly used materials were glass for the facade, steel for exterior support, and concrete for the floors and interior supports; floor plans were functional and logical and not connected with an enforced symmetry on the exterior. The new Woolworth Building was designed in the more modern "International Style" with a horizontal band of windows at the second floor, a cantilevered metal canopy over the sidewalk, full plate-glass storefront and smooth masonry surfaces -- Clarksdale's new Woolworth Building epitomized the International style's principles and characterizations.

One component of the national movement for civil rights was the racial desegregation of public accommodations, such as public transportation, theaters, sports venues and restaurants and lunch counters.

The modern phase, from 1954 to 1964, was marked by nonviolent confrontation of the established Jim Crow laws. Boycotts and sit-ins became tools which advanced the cause for equal access to public accommodations. One of the best-known protests was the effort to integrate the Woolworth lunch counter at the store in Greensboro, NC. On February 1, 1960, four freshman students from North Carolina A&T were denied service at the lunch counter. Demonstrations followed along with a boycott and pickets by the Greensboro black community. A committee of seven whites and one black appointed by the mayor finally worked out a deal to integrate the Woolworth's lunch counter, as well as several other variety stores. On July 25, 1960, three black Woolworth employees were served at the lunch counter.

Progress in desegregation of public accommodations and public education encountered massive resistance in the South. White Citizen's Councils formed to apply pressure on African Americans to back off from their pursuit of first-class citizenship and equal access to public accommodations and education. Resurrected Ku Klux Klan Klaverns unleashed a wave of terrorism to reinforce black subordination.

The new Woolworth Building in Clarksdale featured a 27-stool lunch counter, a signature component of Woolworth stores since the 1940s. The Woolworth lunch counter served as a common meeting place but under the Jim Crow laws, it was off limits to blacks.

Even with the successful action in North Carolina, in Clarksdale, the wheels of change turned much more slowly. According to The Struggle of Struggles (Harlo Press, 1975) by Vera Pigee, a Clarksdale resident and adviser for the N.A.A.C.P.'s Coahoma County Youth Council, members of the Youth Council started demonstrating at Walgreen's and Woolworth's during the spring of 1960. No sit-ins were permitted since, after consulting the N.A.A.C.P. national office, Pigee and other adults agreed the youth didn't have enough experience, planning or resources to properly conduct a sit-in. A group of youths held a shopping tour, and while at Woolworth's, their appearance drew comments, stares and, eventually, police attention. By 1963, the Clarksdale Woolworth's had shut down its lunch counter rather than allow sit-ins to occur. (Clarksdale Press Register, August 2 and 3, 1963). Although massive resistance in Mississippi had taken much more violent form, the closing of the Woolworth lunch counter to everyone, rather than allowing it to be integrated, illustrates the lengths that some people were willing to go to resist desegregation of public accommodations.