Woolworth Building a Civil Rights Symbol Not Fully Understood

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The Historic Woolworth Building

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Historic Woolworth Building

The Woolworth building at the corner of Alamo and Houston streets offers no outward clues about its role in the civil rights movement.

Despite currently housing a Jimmy John’s and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, the building represents an important time in black history – and could be facing demolition.

The building’s fate has been uncertain since the State purchased it in 2015. City and State officials are considering a redesign of the Alamo and its surroundings, and the Woolworth Building is in the crosshairs. City Manager Sheryl Sculley in a late June letter asked the Alamo Management Committee to preserve the Woolworth and two neighboring buildings, but the redesign is in the middle of a hotly contested debate.

Renderings depict the plaza with four different options with and without historic buildings and facades.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

Renderings depict the plaza with four different options with and without historic buildings and facades.

Like other stories from San Antonio’s past, the Woolworth’s place in city history has become somewhat garbled over the years, but its most famous account came on March 16, 1960, when the lunch counter inside began serving black patrons for the first time. The action was a result of activism by locals and organizers with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The NAACP is holding its 109th national conference in San Antonio this week.

However, while most look back on the integration of the Woolworth and other lunch counters in March 1960, some downtown businesses continued discriminating against black people for years.

“[Desegregation] was very gradual,” said Everett Fly, a local architect, landscape architect, and historian who was 8 years old in 1960. “There was no abrupt change.”

San Antonio was not the first community in the South to begin serving black patrons at formerly segregated lunch counters. For example, black student activists successfully received service at three drugstores with soda fountains in Salisbury, North Carolina, and at a lunch counter in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, according to an Associated Press report from March 8, 1960.

What makes San Antonio’s story stand out from other Southern cities is the way multiple local businesses agreed to integrate before protests intensified.

The decision came in the context of Civil Rights Era sit-ins and boycotts over racist Jim Crow laws all across the South. The movement gained greater national attention when four black college students held a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Feb. 1, 1960. It dropped its color barriers later that year.

The protests reached San Antonio on Sunday, March 13, when roughly “1,500 Negroes” held a rally here with NAACP officials, according to a March 14 Associated Press report.

After the meeting, NAACP State Youth Director Harry Burns issued an ultimatum to San Antonio businesses: Integrate now or face nonviolent demonstrations.

That Tuesday, March 15, the San Antonio Council of Churches held a meeting of local business and religious leaders, according to the AP. Afterward, they issued a statement with a list of stores that would stop discriminating against people of color.

These included not just Woolworth, but also S.H. Kress & Co., Neisner’s, Grant’s, and Green’s department stores, as well as 23 San Antonio locations of Sommers drug stores.

These stores began serving black patrons the following day. Several reporters noted that the change happened “without incident.”

That didn’t hold true for too long. On April 23, 1960, a group of black people, including NAACP members, picketed Joske’s department store. Two of the store’s dining rooms had refused service to them, according to a United Press International report.

Even with Joske’s reluctance, the integration of many of San Antonio’s lunch counters was a sign of progress and a milestone in San Antonio’s civil rights struggles.

This photograph shows the East and North elevations of the building on West side of Alamo Plaza, Southwest corner of N. Alamo and E. Houston Streets. Circa 1920-1922.

Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections

This photograph shows the Woolworth building on the West side of Alamo Plaza, circa 1920-1922.

George Frederick, president of Hope House Ministries and board member of the San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum (SAACAM), was only 5 years old when the Woolworth integrated. He remembers eating potato donuts at the lunch counter, something he would not have been able to do if it weren’t for the activists that came before him.

“I wasn’t old enough to understand the strikes, but this was afterwards,” Frederick said. “That’s my fondest memory, the potato donuts.”

Fly, the local architect who does most of the historical research for the SAACAM group, said other downtown businesses continued for years treating customers differently based on race.

“Even by the time I graduated from high school, when I was 18 or 17, there were still places where it was just known you didn’t go because you were black or African-American,” he said.

One example was the Majestic Theatre, he said, recalling how black people would have to enter through the back door on College Street instead of the main entrance. Inside, blacks and whites sat in separate sections.

That contrasted with practices at the Texas Theatre, once located a few blocks away on Houston Street, he said.

“I remember sitting in the Texas Theatre with Hispanic kids, white kids, other black kids,” he said. “That was not the case at the Majestic.”

Because of its role in San Antonio’s history, Fly said that the Woolworth building should be preserved and not torn down.

Johnathan David Jones, 24, rests near an popup storefront before a #SpeakUpSpeakOut rally in 2016.

Anthony Francis for the Rivard Report

Johnathan David Jones rests near a storefront before a #SpeakUpSpeakOut rally in 2016.

Many believe that advancement needs to continue. Recently, videos of police killing unarmed black people have led to protests. Incidents such as the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks and viral videos showing white people calling police on black people in public spaces have led to a national dialogue over systemic racial bias.

“Obviously, we’re grateful that it’s less common for people to be attacked with a fire hose,” said Jonathan-David Jones, 26, a local activist who has helped lead Black Lives Matter demonstrations in San Antonio.

“I appreciate the progress and see where things are going, but at the same time, we’re so far behind,” Jones said.

10 thoughts on “Woolworth Building a Civil Rights Symbol Not Fully Understood

  1. Why would these planners want to demolish buildings with such deep history?
    What significance does the Alamo have over civil rights? After all, the battle of the Alamo was over slave owners defying Mexican law against slavery.
    I have a suggestion; Why not move the Alamo to the Dominion? There all the wealthier folks who continue to benefit from racism can see their precious icon of white supremacy everyday!

    • Agreed! Let’s also build a statue of Santa Ana downtown!

      We should also be flying the Mexican flag over town instead of the white supremacist supporting American flag!

      White privilege is ruining our community!

      • What a racist comment! I for one am sick of feeling blamed for being born white! However one would argue the point being that I am not of Hispanic or African descent (have not had my DNA tested). I am however a real mix of nationalities since my father family has been here since the revolution. My family taught us a strong work ethic, that included education. White privilege? I babysat to earn spending money and waitressed and bussed tables when I got old enough. NO one paid for my college tuition. I worked. My children did the same. Their father did the same. We were not minorities nor were we awarded scholastic awards, we just wanted an education and were willing to work for it. It was more about the determination than privilege. Do not assume that skin color tells the tale. Read “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg if you want to know about the white folks you really want to throw stones at! They were NOT privileged.
        Now as to the above article, I totally agree. All history is history even if you do not like what it represents.

      • Before you throw stones with racist comments I suggest you educate yourself:
        READ “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg.
        If you want a Mexican flag I suggest you move South, it isn’t a bad place to live. You, however, will NOT be treated special in any way. There are no handouts and if you work and put money into their social security system and decide later you want to come back “home” for your great medicare benefits, your social security benefits from Mexico will not come with you. However, if you have earned them in the US, they can be directly deposited into your Banamex account. Also, YOU will have to speak Spanish when you stand in line to hook up your utilities or pay your bill. NO one will ask you to dial 2 to speak English. Get it?
        Until otherwise notified, San Antonio is STILL in Texas and Texas is still a state of the United States.

  2. Brendan,
    Sculley was only reitrerating what SA City Council had previously approved on May 11, 2017 – the repurposing of all three Crockett Block buildings for the “world class” museum. This approval was part of their Ordinance.

  3. It was an African American slave named Joe, who told the story of what happened at the Alamo. Joe was the slave of William Barrett Travis. I often wonder why was Joe allowed to live to tell the story? African American history is so interwoven in the Texas and American history. It sadden me that our school are doing such a poor job in telling the truth about the many accomplishment of the African Americans. Where is the rage about this major oversight?

  4. We need more articles like this one. Articles that showcase the effectiveness of resistance. San Antonio lunch counter recognition (for the building) would add a nice layer to downtown history.

    Let’s not give the Spanish a free pass here, with the enslavement and the genocide that they committed against the Natives. Those Natives lived here for over 10,000 years if you believe local scientists, and unlike the culture that replaced theirs 300 years ago, they didn’t destroy the river, the land; they didn’t cause springs to dry up, and they didn’t send toxins down into aquifers. They didn’t invent fracking; they didn’t initiate a rigid hierarchy that requires poverty, and they didn’t send or lose their children to endless, mind numbing virtual realities and government schooling. I don’t have time to go on …

    Our minds – our responses – shouldn’t default to skipping forward to the atrocities of Anglo behavior in the 1830s and beyond. Sure, whites became dominant and then brought in slave culture, but if you zoom way out at the history of the Western Hemisphere, all dominance began with Hispanic dominance.

    But I don’t think that is the most important thing.

    Here is the most important thing: Hispanic dominance and Anglo dominance both had one exact commonality the world over – the same economic system. I long for the day when we can finally start having serious public discourse about an economic system that only takes, enslaves, and takes more, instead of sharing with community members, human and non-human. That … is how you live in place forever, but as always I’m the cognitive outcast.

    • Wonderful reply. Thank you, Kenneth and I totally agree. When will there be a public discourse to talk about the socio-economics of what is being demonized in most of these comments as “white” whatever.

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