Franklin Street: The Heartbeat of Chapel Hill

“Once upon a time, there was a street like other streets and college towns, that is a place that is more than a street, it is a heartbeat.  The 100 blocks of Franklin Street to a Chapel Hill native is hallowed ground, made so by all the events that we have all witnessed over the years.”
Franklin Street 1879

Franklin Street 1879

– Jock Lauterer

Franklin Street has been the heartbeat of Chapel Hill, just as Lauterer said, since the founding of the college town. It has been etched by the evolution of the times throughout its existence. Remnants of major events on its corners remain even today making Franklin Street the most important street in Chapel Hill.

Franklin Street was named after Benjamin Franklin. It has been known by that name since the construction of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began in the 1790’s. Around that time, Franklin Street consisted of houses, a few stores, a church, and a post office. Back then, “the road wasn’t paved and on a hot summer’s day the dust would rise off the street” (Stolpen 44).

Years later, the beginning of the 1900’s brought many changes for Chapel Hill and its main street.  One decorative addition to Franklin Street, and the campus, was Coker Arboretum. Construction began on the garden in 1903 and continued into the 1940’s (Stolpen p. 57). Amidst the arboretums construction, World War I was taking place. Franklin Street was home to the World War I Liberty Loan Parade (Stolpen).

As the century progressed, construction along Franklin Street continued and the street’s importance grew. Sutton’s Drug Store opened in 1923 providing both medicine and food to the community. The Morehead Planetarium opened on East Franklin Street in 1949. It was the first planetarium on a university campus. Morehead Planetarium was also one of the first celestial training facilities for NASA astronauts (Chapel Hill Preservation Society).

The Morehead Planitarium- Taken by Caroline Culler

Colonial Drug was a drug store and lunch counter, much like Sutton’s Drug Store, that lined Franklin Street in the mid 1900’s. The facility was segregated, like most places at this time. The Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill kicked off here on February 28, 1960. On that day, a group of young black students staged the first sit-in in Chapel Hill. The students were inspired by the Greensboro sit-ins that occurred earlier that month. Like the Greensboro protesters, the students demanded service and refused to leave when it was denied to them. They were arrested and charged. Their efforts sparked the civil rights protests in Chapel Hill. It was the first of many sit-ins to take place before the Civil Rights Bill was passed (Barksdale).

The Varsity Theatre

Picture of the Varsity Theatre at night taken by Caroline Culler.

Protesters also gathered to attempt to desegregate Carolina Theatre on Franklin Street (now the Varsity Theatre). In 1961 the theatre was playing a film called Porgy and Bess. The cast in the film was predominantly black and the theatre manager still refused to desegregate a showing of it. This caused people to picket. Eventually they allowed black students attending the University to attend the movies as an experiment and soon after the theatre was fully integrated (Barksdale).

Other, even larger, demonstrations could be seen as a result of segregation during basketball games. Students could even be seen fasting on Franklin Street for desegregation.

By 1963, the protests had somewhat paid off. Many Chapel Hill food places and businesses had become integrated. The increase of desegregated facilities made the white people of the town believe that all of the protests and other forms of civil disobedience were unnecessary. As a result, there was a greater intolerance towards activism. More violence and arrest occurred in 1964 when civil disobedience was at its peak. However, in ’65, after the Civil Rights Bill was passed, the groups and organizations dissolved and settled down with a sense of accomplishment (Barksdale).

After making it through another hurtle, Franklin Street was once again flourishing. Culture was evolving and technology was advancing. Franklin Street was transforming from a little dirt road to a major passageway for tourism, entertainment, eating, shopping, and gathering.

Ladies selling flowers on Franklin Street in the mid 1900's.

Steve Alfred, a UNC graduate, remembers the flower ladies selling cheap flowers on Franklin Street during the 60’s and 70’s. Down the street from the flower ladies were clubs and bars where music in Chapel Hill flourished. Rock music took on a whole new meaning to UNC students looking to unwind on the weekends. Flower ladies can still be seen on Franklin Street today. They work well past dark. Students pass them by when enjoying the nightlife.

Today many of the traditions and hot spots on Franklin Street have morphed into major events that people from all over come to participate in. Over the years, sports have been a major reason for celebration in Chapel Hill. In 1949, the Beat Duke Parade on Franklin Street was a large celebration for the triumph of Carolina over Duke in football. According to Duke’s sports website, their largest crowd ever, watched them lose to UNC 21-20. UNC supporters were elated and took their excitement downtown and had a parade.  In 2009 an even greater win, the ACC National Basketball Championship, sent fans to Franklin Street. Fans could be seen climbing light poles and jumping over fires. It is estimated that around 50, 000 people rushed to Franklin after the win. With every win, one site guaranteed to be seen on Franklin is devoted fans celebrating.

Franklin Street during Halloween 2008.

Halloween is also a big deal in Chapel Hill. According to an article in the Herald Sun by Beth Velliquette, up to about 25 years ago Halloween on Franklin Street consisted of a few adults judging each other’s costumes.That has changed drastically. Now tens of thousands of people, not only Chapel Hill residents, crowd the street until early in the morning. The crowds were such a hassle that in 2010 police attempted to restrict the amount of people in attendance and ended the party at 11: 30pm. The turnout was a bit smaller, but the display wasn’t in any way disappointing. The city of Chapel Hill gathered in the same place they have been meeting for years and celebrated Halloween. That was what it was really all about.

Even on the days were there are no big celebrations, people continue to come to Franklin Street for shopping and eating. Franklin Street is lined with many shops. Julian’s is a popular store that has been in business since 1942. Other stores that have joined Julian’s include multiple shops that sell UNC Chapel Hill paraphernalia.Some stores also specialize in vintage clothing or comic books. There is also a Walgreen’s that has everything from medicine to umbrellas.

This is a picture of Franklin Street at night taken by Caroline Culler.

Food has been one thing that has brought students and Chapel Hill residents to Franklin Street steadily for generations. Before students were concerned with shopping and technology, they wanted good meals and friendly interaction. Franklin Street provided that and still provides it, but with a few tweaks. Once, there were just a few lunch counters and variety restaurants that cooked a normal collection of foods. There are all types of restaurants now. Walking down Franklin Street today, one could see everything from a sweets shop, to an organic deli, and of course, a McDonald’s can be found. A Vietnamese restaurant along with a few sushi places are there to account for the more exotic tasters. Many people still stick with the classics and continue to go to Sutton’s Drug Store, which has been serving steady all of these years. Many people have kept the ritual of coming to Sutton’s since their childhood. Even students say that Sutton’s has the best burgers around. The fact that Sutton’s is still in business today, serving a whole new generation, captures the magic of Franklin Street. The old and the new are mixed there and generations are united.

Franklin Street has made such an enormous impact on the history and development of UNC and Chapel Hill as a whole that one could not imagine the college town without it. If Franklin Street was pulled out of time and space, the lives of Chapel Hill citizens would be dramatically different. Where would we unite in commemoration without it? Where would all of the protests against segregation be held? Would they even have occurred? The importance of a person, object, or even a street can be determined by the fact without it one’s world would be dramatically altered. Chapel Hill needed Franklin Street to unite the people in protest and in celebration then, and it is still needed for that now.


Julian-Fox, Missy. Franklin Street Stories. Web. 24 Feb. 2011

Allfred, Steve. “The Flower Ladies”. Franklin Street Stories. Web. 24 Feb. 2011

Lauterer, John. Franklin Street Stories. Web. 24 Feb. 2011

“A Brief History of Franklin Street”. Chapel Hill Memories. Web. 24 Feb. 2011

Barksdale, Marcellus. Civil Rights Organization and the Indigenous Movement in Chapel Hill, N.C., 1960-1965.  JSTOR. Web. 19 March 2011

Stolpen, Stephen. A Pictorial History: Chapel Hill. Copyright 1978. Donning Company/Publishers. Print.

Velliquette, Beth. “Chapel Hill Wants a Low-key Halloween.” Herald Sun [Durham] 31 Oct. 2010: 1. Print.

Chapel Hill Preservation Society. “A Walk Down Franklin Street”.

About the Author:

La’Teria Corbin is a UNC Chapel Hill student. Her hometown is Dunn, North Carolina.

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