Coalition for the Woolworth Building
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!
Alamo Plaza and Diversity
This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century. This is a topic I have been working on for many years. You can see some of my writing on it here and here.
The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools. For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history. Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”
Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.
Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks. Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.
Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.
The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)
This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets. The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921. It is on the National Register and a local landmark. But wait. There’s more.
The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration. This was a first for the South. The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier. It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.
A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.
Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out. The San Antonio Express and News reported:
“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.
Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”
Kress, one of the other stores.
Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light. While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.
SO – what happens now? Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.
If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.
They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up. That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.
Joske’s, November 2014.
And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.
Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior. This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity. Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”
Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were. Also where Travis lived during the siege. Probably his slave Joe as well.
Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960. That is true, and incredibly insulting.
It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks. It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.
Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?
Whose history would be erased for whose?
Photo: UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News