The Watch

San Antonio Woolworth Building

San Antonio, Texas, United States

On February 1, 1960, four African-American students sat down at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth's department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, refusing to give up their seats after being denied service. The sit-in inspired dozens of similar demonstrations that were often met with police scrutiny, arrests, and violence. But on March 16, 1960, Woolworth’s in San Antonio, Texas, made history by joining six other local stores that peacefully desegregated their lunch counters without resistance. The city’s interracial cooperation among church leaders, store managers, and members of the NAACP was credited with the achievement. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson called it “a story that should be told around the world.”

Nearly 60 years later, the Woolworth Building’s African-American Civil Rights contribution has faded from public memory, due perhaps in part to its famous neighbor. The building, which today houses entertainment venues including Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, anchors the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza, overlooking the historic mission where the Battle of the Alamo took place. The Woolworth Building is now owned by the Texas General Land Office, which has partnered with local Alamo groups on a master plan to improve the plaza’s visitor experience. A 2017 plan included repurposing Woolworth into a museum that would tell the story of the Alamo, but a 2018 version excluded the building from its site renderings, promising only to “study the significance” of the structure. The official window for public input closed in October 2018, and the selection of an architect to design the museum prior to a professional assessment of the building’s structure and significance threatens to limit the building’s feasibility for reuse. The state does not have to abide by local historic ordinances should it decide to demolish the Woolworth Building, which has been designated both a city and state antiquities landmark.

Concerned preservationists, historians, and activists representing the community recently joined forces to advocate for preservation of the building as a visible link to Alamo Plaza’s little-known African-American history. They argue that together, the Alamo and the Woolworth Building reinforce a richer, more inclusive historical narrative that extends from the 1836 battle to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, expanding the sites’ cultural relevance to a more diverse audience. The Woolworth Building’s proximity to the Alamo provides an ideal setting to explore how local populations interacted, both positively and negatively, in ways that reshaped the United States over three centuries.

By expanding public outreach, seeking influential allies and available legal protections, and offering an alternative vision for the site, the coalition aims to demonstrate that different stakeholder goals can both coexist and thrive within the existing building. Inclusion of the Woolworth Building on the 2020 World Monuments Watch seeks to encourage diverse participatory voices in decision making surrounding the site and reinforce the importance of spatial equity for heritage sites with underrepresented narratives.

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