The Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza is a piece of San Antonio and Texas civil rights history that must not be torn down as part of a City and State redevelopment plan, multiple speakers said at a symposium Saturday. 

Architects and historians spoke in favor of saving the Woolworth at a Conservation Society of San Antonio event focused on protecting the building, where activism in the Civil Rights Era led San Antonio business owners to open up a lunch counter to black patrons. The event Saturday drew high-profile sponsors, including Bexar County, H-E-B, San Antonio Public Libraries, and the World Monuments Fund.

The Conservation Society has for years argued that the Woolworth should be preserved and not torn down as part of a $450 million redevelopment.  The building could be incorporated into a proposed Alamo museum planned for the block of Alamo Plaza that’s currently home to the Woolworth, Crockett, and Palace buildings, according to a “compromise plan” the group released in 2019.

The event came after the announcement earlier this week of a Trinity University African-American Civil Rights Institute to be launched in the basement of the Kress Building at 311 E. Houston St., three blocks away from the Woolworth. 

The basement was the site one of the seven lunch counters where business owners agreed to start serving black patrons in March 1960. The integration came after meetings among business owners, activists, and clergy, and not all downtown businesses agreed to participate. Five of the seven lunch counters were in buildings that are still standing, Conservation Society director Vincent Michael said. None have lunch counters inside anymore. 

In 2015, the Texas General Land Office purchased the Woolworth along with the Crockett and Palace buildings on the west side of Alamo Plaza. The GLO has not yet revealed what it plans to do with the buildings as controversy continues to grow over the future of the Woolworth.

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

City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), part of the six-member Alamo Management Committee, said that committee is set to review architectural studies of the building and a report on desegregation in San Antonio by Trinity University professor Carey Latimore. Latimore will also be tapped to direct the civil rights institute. 

Both sides generally agree on what happened 60 years ago at the Woolworth and other lunch counters in downtown San Antonio. 

The peaceful desegregation came in the wake of lunch counter protests throughout the South starting Feb. 1, 1960, at a North Carolina lunch counter. Mary Lillian Andrews, an Our Lady of the Lake University student and president of the local NAACP youth council at the time, is credited with launching the push for open lunch counters in San Antonio after writing a letter to lunch counter owners. 

Andrews’ family members attended the symposium, and Mary Andrew’s great-niece, Taylor Andrews, read from her great-aunt’s letter:

“Youth of all races in San Antonio go to school, ride the buses, and enjoy municipal recreational facilities together, but they cannot sit down and eat together in your store,” the letter states. “Help the youth of San Antonio realize that the principles stated in the Holy Bible and the Constitution of the United States can be living reality in San Antonio by abolishing the discriminatory practice in your store.” 

The Woolworth’s history was part of what landed the building on the National Register of Historic Places, where it remains one of the few buildings in Texas on the list that reflect milestones in black history, according to Tara Dudley, a lecturer at the University of Texas’ School of Architecture in Austin. 

Dudley shared the results of a study looking at the breakdown of sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places by racial significance. Though black people make up nearly 13 percent of the population in Texas, only around 5 percent of Texas structures on the National Register of Historic Places commemorate black history, she said. 

“It’s intact, we know what it was,” Dudley said. “It was already listed for architecture, for its high style. … You’d think it would be a foregone conclusion that a building like this would be considered worthy of preservation. But this is typical of under-represented narratives.” 

Another speaker was Everett Fly, an architect, landscape architect, and historian who has worked with the Conservation Society on preserving historic structures. His research helped lead to the creation of the San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum

During his talk, Fly showed a photo of Alamo Plaza in 1921 that had people of many races and styles of dress that connote different classes, all gathered together to see an event in Alamo Plaza.

“This is the San Antonio that I see,” Fly said. “I don’t see a line in the plaza of black folks on one side and white folks on the other and another line with Hispanics and Native Americans. They’re all right there together.” 

Local historian Everett Fly
Everett Fly Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Fly said that eliminating tangible traces of history can be considered “cultural cleansing” and called it a “huge mistake to demolish the Woolworth.” 

“African-American history is embedded in Alamo Plaza,” Fly said. “We simply cannot segregate our collective history and culture and be considered serious stewards of Alamo Plaza and Texas history.” 

At the event, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff spoke strongly in favor of preserving Woolworth and keeping Alamo Plaza open. 

“This plaza is the greatest meeting place of anywhere in San Antonio,” Wolff said, arguing that closing it off to the public would be a “travesty and an injustice.” 

Bruce Winders, the Alamo’s historian-curator from 1996 until his resignation in 2019, gave a presentation about the layers of community history that unfolded around Alamo Plaza. The context for the 1836 battle cannot be separated from the history of San Antonio, he said.

“It’s not about the battle,” Winders said. “It’s about the town.” 

Winders went on to call the Woolworth an “important building” that was a “vibrant part of the community.” 

“It’s worth saving, and to tear it down will be as egregious as tearing down the Long Barrack,” Winders said. 

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.