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

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.
Renderings depict the plaza with four different options with and without historic buildings and facades. Credit: Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

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.
This photograph shows the Woolworth building on the West side of Alamo Plaza, circa 1920-1922. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections

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.
Johnathan David Jones rests near a storefront before a #SpeakUpSpeakOut rally in 2016. Credit: Anthony Francis for the San Antonio Report

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.

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