Cheryl Wyatt was 13 years old when she skipped school and took the bus downtown with a friend to the Woolworth store in Alamo Plaza.
It was March 16, 1960 — a Wednesday, Wyatt recalls, when her school cafeteria would be serving enchiladas for lunch. But local church pastors had organized a sit-in to protest segregation and she wanted to be there.
Two days later, a newspaper story on the local demonstration reported that “Negroes ate without incident in a number of places hitherto barred to them.”
The San Antonio Register headline read, “San Antonio Quietly Integrates Eating Facilities.”
Wyatt and her friends remember it differently. Not so quietly.
‘Whites only’ counters
Woolworth was a popular department store in San Antonio that Wyatt and her family visited regularly. The bus stopped right in front.
But there, and at the nearby Joske’s and Kress stores, Black customers entered through a back door, could only shop for goods in the basement and were not allowed to try on clothes before buying.
The stores had racially segregated restrooms — dark and dingy for Black patrons — and separate water fountains.
Like many places across the country, Woolworth also had a “whites only” lunch counter; Black people would be served only if they took their food to go.
On Feb. 1, 1960, in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth store, four college students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter to bring attention to segregation. The protest turned violent and ignited similar protests in Tennessee, Mississippi and other places. The store is now a museum.
In San Antonio, religious, civic and business leaders were watching.
In response to a letter from 17-year-old Mary Lillian Andrews, head of the local youth council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, they met and agreed to simultaneously desegregate some area lunch counters by March 17.
Meanwhile, the members of Mount Zion First Baptist Church and the Second Baptist Church prepared to mobilize and see it through. Encouraged by civil rights leader the Rev. Claude Black and other ministers, hundreds of people planned a peaceful sit-in for March 16.
A lasting memory
When Wyatt and her friend Patricia James arrived at the Woolworth store on that Wednesday morning, she recognized people from her church and other school children who had gathered on the sidewalk and just inside the door.
Police officers also stood by, she said.
“There were people at the counter and there was one seat open,” Wyatt said.
Her friend held back, afraid of what might happen. But Wyatt felt only anger.
It was the same feeling she had the day her grandmother took her to Joske’s to buy her a birthday gift. “It was a dress, I’ll never forget, with the little petticoats,” she said.
While they stood at the register to pay, the clerk assisted every other customer first. Wyatt complained to her grandmother who briskly shushed her.
“My grandmother just stood there, and that infuriated me,” she said.
Wyatt never forgot.
When she took the only open seat at the Woolworth lunch counter that day, the memory was fresh. A waitress was the first to confront her.
“Me being me, I walked over there to sit down and sure enough this lady gave me the N-word [and said] you’re not supposed to sit here, get away,” she said.
A white man sitting on Wyatt’s right stood up, and using derogatory terms, said he did not want to sit next to a Black person and walked out. Other customers verbally scolded and abused her. Wyatt could hear a commotion starting outside, but she wasn’t scared.
“I was trying to hold my peace because I have a mouth on me,” Wyatt said. “It was just that idea that they’re telling me I can’t sit here because of the color of my skin.”
Wyatt sat there for a while longer until a man participating in the demonstration slid into the seat next to her and said she could get up and let another protester take a turn.
Telling her story
In the end, physical violence was averted and some San Antonio’s lunch counters began serving Black patrons that day. But discriminatory practices at other places persisted.
Joske’s drew Black picketers the following month after two of the store’s dining rooms had refused service to them, according to a United Press International report.
The young Wyatt kept secret from her mother that she had skipped school, at least until she was about to graduate from high school.
Later, as a school teacher, Wyatt frequently shared the story with her class and showed them photos of sit-ins in other cities in the South. “But you couldn’t say too much … because then the administrator would say, ‘Why would you bring that up?’” she said.
Wyatt, now 75, found a wider audience when she repeated the story at a recent City Council meeting.
She was making the case for the need to proceed with plans for the Alamo Museum and Visitors Center, to be housed in the Woolworth building, amid a dispute over property rights. The museum is to include a display commemorating the building’s role in desegregation.
‘That kept us safe’
Wyatt’s friend who was there that day with her in March 1960 has died. But the friends she sees daily at a local San Antonio senior center remember hearing about the Woolworth sit-in and recall their own efforts to speak out.
Due to lack of transportation, Hessie Hardeman could not have gone to the sit-in if she wanted to, she said.
Hardeman grew up in an area on the far West Side, near Lackland Air Force Base, that was rural at the time with all-Black schools, no running water and very limited bus service.
Deborah Abrams, age 74, was attending Saint Peter Claver School at the time of the sit-in. “My parents were not going to let me go anyway,” she said. The opportunity to fight for justice came soon after.
The religious women who taught in the Catholic school did not distinguish between races, she said. But when a nun new to the school said in frustration to the class, “You people go back to where you came from,” the students en masse took their grievance to the principal. It never happened again.
James Mulkey, age 71, said his parents and grandparents taught him to keep quiet and show respect to pastors and other adults like police officers, for one very good reason.
“That kept us safe … but we knew sometimes we were being treated unfairly,” he said.
The group of friends said that even though lunch counters and other public spaces have been desegregated, every day is still a fight for racial equity. “I’m angry because I’m 75 and it’s taken 75 years to still be in the same situation,” Wyatt said.
But keeping quiet about it ended with their generation. And the sit-ins and protests and marches in San Antonio rang louder than sometimes characterized, said Wyatt’s friends.
“It wasn’t quiet,” said Thelma Todd, age 74. “It wasn’t as smooth as it seems.”
In honor of Black History Month, the exhibit “Black Resistance at the Lunch Counter,” opens Feb. 13 at the IKEA store located at 1000 IKEA-RBFCU Pkwy in Live Oak.