“The U.S. Civil Rights Trail was designed to motivate people to learn more, see more and feel more. The website can tell the stories, but the emotional weight of those stories cannot be fully absorbed without standing in the exact spots where sacrifices were made and the direction of history was changed.”
The Civil Rights Trail combines sites that have been significant in the battle for Civil Rights, especially the 1950s and 1960s. Launched in January, 2018, the Trail includes over 100 sites in 14 states. Given the incredible popular success of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the fact that Civil Rights tourism is a growth sector demanding honest history, the identification and interpretation of such sites promises to be an economic boon to communities where these resources are located.
In San Antonio, we have the story of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960, a story that Jackie Robinson said “should be told around the world.” He was quoted in the New York Times on March 20, 1960, but the story did not have the “legs” of the more confrontational protests in other cities.
In addition to Woolworth’s the sites of the Kress, H.L. Green, Grant’s, Sommers and Neisner’s stores survive, sans lunch counters. The beginnings of a Civil Rights trail are right in front of us, although the concern is that at least two of these could disappear soon.
Thanks to local landscape architect and historian Everett Fly, more overlooked sites in San Antonio are now being uncovered. You could see markers for the Rincon School near the River Walk, but Fly’s work has really illuminated the importance of downtown – notably Alamo Plaza, in a struggle for equal rights that goes back to the early 1880s.
The challenge now is to bundle these sites – and many more, into a package that can attract tourist investment. In San Antonio we already have the largest Martin Luther King Day march, active contingents of Buffalo Soldier interpreters, and Everett Fly’s impressive research into African American cemeteries.
The opportunity is there. The question is: Do we embrace it?
San Antonio has a unique history in the Civil Rights movement, but it is not known because it is characterized not by conflict, but by its absence. The tradition continues to this day with the nation’s largest Martin Luther King Day March. Approximately 300,000 participants annually.
This year, a new Coalition for the Woolworth Building participated in the march and had an information booth in the park afterwards. The Conservation Society is a member along with the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, among others.
As the banner notes, what happened in San Antonio in 1960 was different.
- February 1, 1960 – four students stage a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Protests and violent reactions pepper the nation in the following weeks.
- March, 1960 – OLLU student and NAACP member Mary Andrews sends letters to downtown lunch counters requesting equal service. NAACP holds rally Sunday March 13 and asks for desegregation by Thursday March 17.
- On Tuesday, March 15 civic, religious and business leaders meet and agree to desegregate Woolworth’s and six other lunch counters.
- Wednesday, March 16, 1960. Photographers descend on Woolworth’s in San Antonio as blacks and whites are served equally at the basement cafeteria and lunch counter
- March 19, 1960. Jackie Robinson calls the voluntary integration “a story that should be told around the world” and compares it to his integration of Major League baseball in a Page 1 New York Times story
There were places – Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City, that integrated their ,lunch counters earlier, but only following protests and confict. San Antonio proceeded differently.
Woolworth’s location gave it special significance. Nettie Hinton recalls buying the “big donuts” at Woolworth’s prior to catching the bus to the African-American East Side. Indeed, the corner of Alamo and Houston was where the cultures of San Antonio met and separated – Hispanics to the west, African Americans to the east, and Anglos to the north.
The story is not well known, despite Jackie Robinson and the front page of the New York Times because there was no violence. The old news media saying “If it bleeds, it leads” could find no purchase in the soil of San Antonio, so the story was not “told around the world” as Robinson pleaded.
Although it could be still! In fact, Civil Rights sites are one of the few growth areas in tourism, as reported recently. This Civil Rights site is an opportunity for San Antonio.
What’s Not There
Now, the threat to the Woolworth’s Building since 2015 has been that it sits atop the site of the west wall of the Alamo compound, potentially the site of Travis’ quarters during the epochal 1836 battle.
Yesterday someone said to me: “But the lunch counter is gone – there is no remnant of it.”
The same is true of the western wall and Travis’ quarters. Nothing left of them. The buildings there have basements, so it’s all gone. No remnant.
So which do you interpret?
Both, obviously. And you have tons of room inside the Woolworth Building to do that.
See my 2018 blog on the Woolworth Building here.
The Woolworth Building has been nominated as a State Antiquities Landmark, to be heard by the Texas Historical Commission on April 16. You can voice your support by contacting Mark Wolfe, Executive Director, Texas Historical Commission, P.O. Box 12276, Austin, TX 78711, Mark.Wolfe@thc.texas.gov
Also, check the Conservation Society website for updates!