By Vincent Michael
The 1921 Woolworth Building occupies the most prominent corner in San Antonio, facing Alamo Plaza and its famous chapel. In 2015, The Conservation Society of San Antonio became concerned when the state of Texas purchased it and two adjacent historic buildings, which all sit astride the site of the western wall of the Alamo mission and fort. Officials wanted to “reclaim the footprint” of the Alamo compound, known primarily for the 1836 massacre of its defenders during the Texas Revolution. The Plaza is also part of the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Site, inscribed in 2015.
But the Woolworth Building was the key site of the first peaceful and voluntary integration of lunch counters during the 1960s sit-in movement. On March 16, 1960, Woolworth’s and six other downtown lunch counters opened to black and white customers one day before a planned sit-in demonstration. Major League great Jackie Robinson heralded it as “a story that should be told around the world.” Losing this building would mean losing an important site of the Civil Rights movement.
The protection of the Woolworth Building from demolition succeeded because of the tireless advocacy and work of a broad-based coalition, with implications far beyond the protection of this single building.
Building a Coalition to Save the Woolworth Building
In 2016, the Conservation Society got the Woolworth Building on Preservation Texas’ Most Endangered Places list. Plans for Alamo Plaza unveiled in 2017 showed the Woolworth Building replaced by a modern museum. Those plans received city and state approval in 2018, despite considerable public opposition.
The Coalition for the Woolworth Building was formed in December 2018 by The Conservation Society of San Antonio, San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum (SAAACAM), Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, Westside Preservation Alliance, and many individual preservationists and historians, including Aaronetta Pierce, a legendary Black philanthropist, and architect Everett Fly, FASLA. Within a few months, the coalition also included San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside, and the San Antonio Branch NAACP. The Mexican American Civil Rights Institute joined in 2019.
Robust community representation in the Coalition demonstrated that issues went well beyond the concerns of traditional preservationists. It is one thing to ignore a 97-year-old preservation group but quite another to ignore a 103-year-old civil rights organization. Having Black and Mexican American advocates front and center was essential. Even more important was ensuring that all strategies, actions, and decisions were made by the group as a whole. The first actions included producing a banner for the January 2019 Martin Luther King Day march—San Antonio has the largest one in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Conservation Society engaged an architectural firm to develop drawings demonstrating that the proposed new Alamo museum could be achieved by rehabilitating and adding onto the historic Woolworth Building and adjacent Crockett Building, an 1882 structure also owned by the state. The coalition unveiled those drawings at a May 2019 press conference where coalition partners spoke to the media. A few days later, three Conservation Society representatives and three representatives of the San Antonio Branch NAACP traveled to Austin and witnessed the Texas Historical Commission (THC) declare the Woolworth Building a State Antiquities Landmark. While the Conservation Society had assembled the nomination, Coalition support made the THC’s decision easier.
Spreading the Word
The Coalition continued to raise public awareness and build support, including from those with direct connections to the lunch counter integration movement. The 1960 integration had been prompted by 17-year-old Mary Lillian Andrews, a college student who headed the Youth Council of the NAACP. She wrote letters asking stores to integrate, led the NAACP rally that set the March 17 date for sit-ins, and was pictured in Jet magazine sitting with a friend at the Woolworth lunch counter in late March 1960. Sadly, Mary Lillian died in 1998, but her brother, Chuck, and his wife, Thelma, joined the Coalition.
In October 2019, the Conservation Society and a local artist built an ofrenda—an altar built to lost loved ones—to Mary Lillian Andrews with volunteers from the NAACP and AKA sorority. Part of a two-day Dia de los Muertos in a downtown park, the ofrenda was seen by 100,000 visitors and won second prize out of more than three dozen entrants, with the proceeds going to the San Antonio Branch NAACP.
A few days later, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) announced its 2020 World Monuments Watch list, which included the San Antonio Woolworth Building as one of 25 sites—and only three in the U.S.—on the two-year list. WMF had been impressed with the underrepresented narrative of the Woolworth Building and the diverse nature of the Coalition.
The listing was reported in Architectural Record and newspapers across North America, and soon the state of Texas asked for a meeting with the Coalition, represented by the Conservation Society and Gregory Hudspeth, Ph.D and president of the San Antonio Branch NAACP. Hudspeth explained from his own experience why the Woolworth, unlike the other lunch counters that integrated that day, meant so much to the Black community. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff garnered front-page headlines supporting the efforts of the Coalition.
In January 2020, the Coalition rallied at the building, passing out free donuts to recall the famous Woolworth lunch counter’s potato donuts and offering a brief outside walking tour in order to garner public attention for the upcoming Watch Day Symposium. WMF President Bénédicte de Montlaur visited in late January to promote Watch Day events and had a tense meeting with the Alamo Trust.
The Coalition insured that the February 1, 2020, Watch Day Symposium, “The Role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights History,” had a robust and diverse participation as five scholars underscored the importance of not only the Woolworth Building, but also the adjacent Plaza where citizens have demonstrated for their rights since the 1880s. Plans were made for another public action at the Woolworth Building on the 60th anniversary of its integration on March 16, 2020, but by that time the pandemic had hit and the vigil was kept only by Coalition stalwarts Nettie Hinton and Maria Stevenson Greene of the NAACP and Conservation Society.
The Coalition continued to meet remotely during the pandemic, recording video testimonials and helping produce mini-documentaries about the 1960 lunch counter integration, which were released in May 2021.
By the fall of 2020, things started to change. The Alamo Trust’s director stepped down, and the Texas Historical Commission denied the Trust’s request to move the 1940 cenotaph sculpture in Alamo Plaza. The Alamo Trust released John G. Waite Associates, Architects’ report confirming that the Woolworth and Crockett buildings were in excellent condition and could be rehabilitated. Moreover, the report noted that the Woolworth Building was the only one of the six lunch counter sites to retain traces of its lunch counter.
On March 1, 2021, original Coalition member Aaronetta Pierce was named a tri-chair of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee. The leading city official for the project was replaced, and by early summer Bexar County announced a $25 million contribution to the new Alamo museum to be located in the rehabilitated Crockett and Woolworth buildings, which would include interpretation of the Woolworth Building’s Civil Rights history.
A Resilient Coalition
The resilience of the Coalition became even more evident after they saved the Woolworth Building. Coalition members are now working together to preserve other sites of significance to the city’s Black and Mexican American communities. A noted 1930s Spanish language print shop was saved from emergency demolition, and four other local landmarks are now in play. The Conservation Society and SAAACAM are also working with the city to survey potential landmarks related to Black history.
By themselves, historic preservation organizations can be marginalized by political leaders and the media. It was clear from the beginning of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building that Black and brown voices needed to be at the forefront. Moreover, those voices elucidated the importance of the site in ways traditional preservation could not. Partners like the San Antonio Branch NAACP, SAAACAM, and Esperanza took the lead on some events and kept the issue in the public eye. Shared leadership and transparent communication kept the Coalition together for over two and a half years and was critical for gaining access to city, county, and state leaders.
Vincent Michael is the executive director at The Conservation Society of San Antonio.