The Historic Woolworth Building
The Historic Woolworth Building in Alamo Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff made news here in San Antonio last week with a call to save Alamo Plaza’s Woolworth Building to commemorate its status as a key institution in peacefully desegregating the city’s businesses.

Two days earlier, local resident Nettie Hinton made news in Canada on the same issue.

Both Hinton and Wolff are motivated by history and memory. Hinton’s memories, however, are the more vivid. Now 80, she grew up in a segregated San Antonio. 

“I remember as a child, at the five and dime on Houston called Kress’s, on that back wall there was a water fountain that said ‘colored,’ and then there was a water fountain that said ‘white,’ and I knew which water fountain I was supposed to drink from,” Hinton told the Toronto Star. “When I got on the bus, I sat at the back of the bus.”

She also remembers Woolworth’s – with some fondness – in its segregated days.

“The wonderful, positive experience with the Woolworth Building is the fact that the bakery stand was right there in front of the seats for the lunch counter,” she said. “And while they would not let me buy lunch at the counter, they would sell me those wonderful doughnuts. They were huge German puffy doughnuts, iced with sugar and things, and we could buy the doughnuts and stand there on the corner. Warm memories. Icing sugary warm memories.”

As a young woman, Nettie Hinton didn’t exactly drink the Kool-Aid, but she did eat the donuts, and drink the water out of the prescribed fountain.

Nettie Hinton

Again from the Toronto Star: “If I was thirsty, I wasn’t going to fight the Civil War battle then. I was going to satisfy my thirst and stay out of trouble and not get my family name diminished in any way.”

I’m not sure when Hinton got over her civil obedience, but for years she has been vocal at City Hall and other venues on a range of issues, including development around a historic bridge and gentrification.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to her years ago for several months during weekly grand jury sessions. I can’t say much about the deliberations, but I’ll just say that she was capable of voting against indicting a young man for marijuana possession when there was strong evidence that he was stopped and searched solely for being black. She also was capable of being in the minority in voting, over prosecutors’ stated preference, to indict a black law enforcement official arrested for driving under the influence.

Now I’m delighted to see her standing up for the Woolworth Building. The peaceful desegregation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in March 1960 was not alone in playing a role that year in ending the denial of services to blacks, but it was among the earliest to do so without strife. Houston’s lunch counters were desegregated about the same time, but only after the mayor announced that sit-in protesters would be arrested and the police chief stood up to him, saying they weren’t breaking any laws. In much of the rest of the South, beginning in Greensboro, North Carolina, such sit-ins led to ugly scenes. 

The officials charged with transforming Alamo Plaza have yet to commit to saving the Woolworth Building, though they are suggesting that it will receive some recognition. The fact is that two of the main players in the decision, including Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, appear to be committed to celebrating the story of the Alamo while giving little more than lip service to the history of the Alamo before the 1836 battle and of the vibrant Alamo Plaza in the years since. 

Worse, their design appears determined to end the Plaza’s role as San Antonio’s most active civic plaza, right up until recent months. Wolff accurately calls Alamo Plaza historically San Antonio’s “greatest civic space” and asks the officials to abandon their plan to allow access through only one gate during the day and six at night.

As the plan was being debated, it called for a glass wall around much of the plaza. At first it was whispered that such a wall was required to protect the plaza from terrorist attacks. When this didn’t seem to be working, officials said Alamo Street needed to be shut down because traffic vibrations were harming the Alamo foundation. That rationale was abandoned when protesting architects asked to see the studies demonstrating it.

Now we’re told the single daytime entrance is necessary to shape the visitor experience by funneling people through the proposed museum. That means that during the day, this vital corner of downtown will be designed as a site solely for tourists, not for citizens. 

Does it also hint at another reason that our most active civic plaza is being entirely turned into a museum: that visitors will be forced to exit through the museum’s gift shop?

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.