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

Maria Stevenson Greene, a member of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building and the Conservation Society of San Antonio, took the podium Tuesday at the Bexar County Courthouse to thank county commissioners for committing $25 million to help preserve the Woolworth building. She called it “a bountiful appropriation and cause for jubilation.”

“With these monies, you are providing … inoculation, inoculation against hate and ignorance by financing and fostering communication, collaboration, innovation, evaluation, cultural validation,” she said, delivering her comments in the form of spoken-word poetry. “And for the element of the Woolworth building, conservation.”

The Woolworth building opened its doors on June 3, 1921. On Tuesday, Bexar County commissioners recognized its 100th birthday, declaring Thursday as a day of observance for the building’s centennial. The anniversary comes as plans move forward to make the building part of a museum and visitor center for the Alamo as part of a redevelopment of Alamo Plaza.

Commissioners voted in May to commit $25 million over five years to help with fund the project, which also includes the adjacent Crockett Building.

A conceptual rendering shows the possible future of the historic Woolworth and Crockett buildings across the street from the Alamo church. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Trust

The historic Woolworth building, which is owned by the Texas General Land Office and currently home to the Ripley’s Haunted Adventure tourist attraction, holds a significant place in San Antonio’s civil rights history. After local student Mary Lillian Andrews spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to local businesses calling for desegregation, the Woolworth building lunch counter began serving Black patrons in 1960 – before a protest or sit-in demonstration took place.

After the state of Texas purchased the Woolworth building and its two neighbors in 2015, the structure’s future was uncertain as the site was considered for demolition to make way for construction of the proposed museum. The Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building had been among the groups lobbying to save the building. On Tuesday, Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) commended their advocacy.

“Really, you are all the ones that create the policies that we help implement and work toward,” Calvert said. “Just think about 100 years of history that the Woolworth building has seen. … Just imagine what the progress [will be] in the next 100 years.”

The desegregation effort is part of the complete San Antonio story, Conservation Society President Patti Zaiontz said.

“We are saving a building to demonstrate the rest of the history of San Antonio, the full history of San Antonio, including the important part we played In the civil rights movement in the South
,” Zaiontz said. 

In her comments Greene also emphasized the need to include civil rights history when telling the story of San Antonio at the Alamo.

“Commissioners, you have arrived at an opportunity for re-emancipation, to secure for our youth accurate information and cultural clarification,” Greene said. “How else will they know that 17-year-old college freshman and NAACP council president Mary Lillian Andrews launched San Antonio’s lunch counter desegregation?”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.