Woolworth Department Store Fire, 1949
The Woolworth department store in Charleston was consumed by fire on May 5th, 1949. Seven firefighters died in the effort to save the building, including two African American members of the Charleston fire department. Due to the store's policy of racial discrimination, these two men would not have been served had they attempted to patronize the business. The fire also caused over one million dollars in damage.
Backstory and Context
The Woolworth Department Store in downtown Charleston, WV was a "whites only" department store that caught fire and burned on May 5th, 1949. Among the seven firefighters who died battling the fire, were two black firefighters, Richard McCormick and U.S. Army veteran George Coates. Had McCormick and Coates tried to sit down to eat a sandwich or have a cup of coffee at the Woolworth’s lunch counter the day before the fire, they would have been denied. This store was certainly not alone in their "white-only" policy, as several other downtown lunch counters did not allow blacks until 1958.
The tragedy served as a catalyst for African-Americans in the Charleston area that led to several protests in the 1950s and would lead to city-wide sit-ins and boycotts in the late 1950s. In that year, sit-ins and boycotts organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) compelled most store owners to change their practice.