After reading Rick Casey’s commentary on the Woolworth Building, I was reminded that it is a powerful historical juxtaposition that the Woolworth faces the Alamo. The Battle at the Alamo, a mission turned fort on one side of the plaza, is a symbol of despair for my ancestors. The Woolworth building, across the plaza, is a symbol of reconciliation, change, and hope.
That the Woolworth’s survival could be determined by the defenders of the Alamo redesign is serendipitous and offers San Antonio and the entire state the opportunity to fully address the rich legacy of the entire plaza. In the Battle of the Alamo, Texians were fighting for their freedom to establish the Republic of Texas. Tragically, for my ancestors, freedom for the Alamo defenders signaled enslavement for black Texans. The Texians’ opponent, Mexico, had outlawed slavery in its territories which included Tejas. However, Texians who wanted to grow cotton in Tejas needed free labor in order to make these crops profitable.
The Battle of the Alamo was a devastating blow to the effort to create a republic. However, the war was won approximately one month later at the Battle of San Jacinto in April 1836. It followed that through Section 9 of the General Provision of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, also in 1836, slavery was legally established in the Republic. The number of enslaved Africans who were brought to Texas grew by thousands. Slavery continued in 1845 when the Republic became a state and remained until June 19, 1865. Freed African Americans were subjected to segregation, Jim Crow laws, unfair incarceration, discrimination, redlining, and much more.
Almost 100 years later, in 1960, black people found the courage to demand that stores, like Woolworth’s, that accepted their money for merchandise, allow them to eat at the lunch counters. It was the young Mary Lillian Andrews, a 17-year-old freshman at Our Lady of the Lake University and president of the teen members of the NAACP, who wrote to all the downtown stores with lunch counters asking them to desegregate. She was a member of the Sutton family of San Antonio (two of her uncles were G. J. Sutton and Percy Sutton), a family known for their leadership and fearless dedication to the truth.
Her actions prompted a mass meeting that planned sit-in demonstrations. Thanks to the leadership of San Antonio’s religious community, the NAACP, civic and business leaders, as well as military advisors from local bases (that had already been integrated), the downtown stores desegregated on March 16, 1960, without protest and violence. Jet magazine published a photo of Andrews and a friend eating at the newly integrated Woolworth lunch counter, and Jackie Robinson, who had visited San Antonio around that time, told The New York Times that what San Antonio had done “should be told around the world.”
The desegregation of the lunch counters at the Woolworth acknowledges San Antonio’s participation in the civil rights movement. The Woolworth is a symbol of change for San Antonio, a symbol of freedoms won beyond the battlefield.
The Woolworth Building should be preserved as a place to interpret San Antonio’s unique role in civil rights history for visitors and San Antonians alike. The interpretation could take more than one path. It could be a space for conflict resolution, a space for civic education, and a San Antonio museum of African American history.
All of this adds a richness and depth to the story of freedom at Alamo Plaza. To ignore the opportunity to support the coexistence of these two iconic landmarks is to, once again, negate the power, the impact, the importance, and the veracity of African Americans in San Antonio, in Texas, and in the United States of America. In 2019, we know better and must do better.
As African Americans, we have earned this respect.