A new Trinity University museum and institute focused on San Antonio’s local black history and the civil rights era is being planned for a former lunch counter in the Kress building downtown. 

In an interview Wednesday, City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who serves on the six-member Alamo Management Committee, and Carey Latimore, associate professor of history at Trinity University, announced a Trinity University African-American Civil Rights Institute to be created in the basement of the former five-and-dime store at 311 E. Houston St. 

The basement is the site of one of the seven downtown lunch counters that were peacefully desegregated during an intense week of negotiations among business leaders, clergy, and San Antonio civil rights activists in February 1960. However, most discussion of that time has centered on another former lunch counter at the Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza. That building’s future is uncertain. 

GrayStreet Partners, a development firm that owns the Kress, agreed to lease the 5,000-square-foot basement to the City for free starting as early as June 1, according to a December letter of intent obtained by the Rivard Report. The City will finish out the space at an estimated cost of $1 million and convey it to Trinity, Treviño said. 

“I envision a place, an institute, where the community … especially students, will have an opportunity to engage in museum studies, public history, and perhaps even public policy,” said Latimore, who studies and teaches African-American history at the private liberal arts school. 

Kevin Covey, GrayStreet’s managing partner, told the Rivard Report that the idea for the museum is “really cool.” 

“I’m happy that they’re considering doing it there,” Covey said. “I think it will be a great enhancement to both the building and Houston Street.”

The basement of the historic Kress Building on Houston Street in downtown San Antonio

The announcement comes amid debate over the future of the Woolworth building on Alamo Plaza, the site of a $450 million redevelopment by the Texas General Land Office, the City, and Alamo Trust, the site’s nonprofit manager. The State of Texas currently owns the Woolworth and the adjacent Crockett and Palace buildings. 

“It’s ultimately the State of Texas’ decision what the ultimate fate of these buildings is, but I do want to point out that there is a thoughtful process,” Treviño said. “It’s not a whim. We are going through a thorough vetting of the information in order to make the best recommendation.”

The Woolworth and Kress buildings both hosted lunch counters where business owners 60 years ago agreed to start serving black patrons. The peaceful desegregation came in response to protests in other Texas cities and under pressure from local civil rights activists.

The area where the three buildings sit on Alamo Plaza is slated for a future Alamo museum, which will be separate from the civil rights museum announced Wednesday, Treviño said. 

“We believe we will have the institute finished out well before the Alamo museum is done,” he said. “Which means they will be consulting the Alamo on their exhibits.” 

Latimore stressed that the announcement of the new institute while the Woolworth’s future hangs in the balance is “not a bait and switch.” He and Trevino both said that the Alamo museum’s mission is to tell the “entire story” about Texas history, including the centuries-long struggle of black Texans for freedom and equality. 

“This is not a power play of the Alamo pushing the institute,” Latimore said. “The institute stands on its own. … We’re setting this up as an academic space.”

As part of the redevelopment efforts, Alamo officials hired Latimore to produce a report on the complete history of desegregation in downtown San Antonio. Latimore dug into newspaper archives, recorded interviews, and other sources to learn more about the context surrounding the 1960 push for desegregation.

The process was gradual, with some downtown businesses, including Joske’s department store, refusing to serve black patrons at its lunch counter even after others opened up their businesses, Latimore said. 

“Desegregation is often messy because it doesn’t often include everybody,” Latimore said. “And it may not always include every place. It’s a process. … The broader story is really about understanding those pushes and pulls and not just one moment.”

The assurances might not soothe those pushing for the Woolworth building’s preservation, including the San Antonio Conservation Society and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Last year, the World Monuments Fund listed the Woolworth on its watch list of endangered sites around the world. 

On Saturday, the Conservation Society will host an event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Commissioners Courtroom on the second floor of the Bexar County Courthouse at 100 Dolorosa St. At the event, historical experts will discuss the Woolworth and Alamo Plaza’s role in San Antonio’s civil rights history. 

During the interview Tuesday, Treviño discussed the condition of the Woolworth’s interior, most of which is taken up by the Tomb Rider thrill ride and other tourist attractions.

“All that has essentially gutted the buildings,” Trevino said. “The argument can be made that maybe the last piece of this that is recognizable is the façades.”

In addition to Latimore’s report, Alamo officials hired New York historic preservation architect Jack Waite to do an architectural study of the Woolworth and neighboring buildings, Treviño said. Waite’s and Latimore’s reports will be made public after the Alamo Management Committee has had a chance to review them, likely at a meeting sometime in the next two weeks, he said. 

Officials will also weigh the recommendation of architects Machado Silvetti and HKS, which were chosen for the design of the Alamo museum, Treviño said. 

“We feel that the [General Land Office] and the State of Texas will ultimately make the best decision based on the recommendations of the architect,” Treviño said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.