Woolworth-building-san-antonio

The Alamo is internationally renowned as a symbol of courage in the struggle for liberty. In this Tricentennial year celebrating San Antonio’s place in history, it’s exciting to think about the great possibilities ahead for the Alamo complex, as the city and state work out a reimagined space.

The plan partly will include changes to the structures across the plaza from the Alamo – the Crockett Block, former Palace Theatre and the Woolworth Building. In 2015, the Texas General Land Office, now a major player in the Alamo Master Plan, purchased them with repurposing in mind.

Businesses presently there, tourist destinations considered by many inappropriate for the hallowed area, have been promised new locations. Today, the Woolworth Building and its neighbors are envisioned as the site of an Alamo Museum.

The San Antonio Conservation Society and American Institute of Architects San Antonio chapter have already endorsed such an endeavor. They also suggest retaining as much of the buildings’ notable interior features as possible during reconstruction.

While most know the Alamo’s significance, far fewer realize the adjacent edifices carry some historical import, too – especially the Woolworth Building. In fact, in 2016 the structure was named to the “Most Endangered Places” list compiled by Preservation Texas, largely due to its legendary place in civil-rights annals.

February, which is National Black History Month, is a good time to revisit that story.

While heroes laid down their lives for freedom at the Alamo, men and women of courage and conscience stood up for another kind of freedom in a peaceful 1960s fight for inclusion. Historians remember the Woolworth Building as a landmark – the first voluntarily integrated lunch counter in the South.

Several decades ago, five-and-dimes owned by the F.W. Woolworth Co. were part of a huge national chain, and lunch counters there, and elsewhere, became a symbolic great divide between Anglos and African-Americans.

Nowadays, it must be hard for many younger folks to grasp the reality of fewer than 60 years past. In many parts of the country, African-Americans weren’t allowed to use lunch counters, schools, bathrooms, drinking fountains, universities or other places reserved for whites only.

While the civil-rights movement’s nonviolent struggles spawned conflict in many places, San Antonio’s strong interfaith community, led by Rabbi David Jacobson, the Rev. Claude Black, Archbishop Robert Lucey, Episcopal Bishop Everett Jones and the Rev. S. H. James Jr., preached justice and equality.

City leaders publicly affirmed the rights of the NAACP to peacefully protest. Then, local business owners stepped up, too. What followed next were four black men served at the Woolworth’s on Alamo Plaza on March 16, 1960, making our community a beacon for desegregation and one to emulate.

Every January, San Antonio hosts one of the largest Martin Luther King Jr. parades in the United States. Although our African-American population is relatively small, we take pride in our diversity and community spirit.

Today, those lunch counters are long gone, but it would be great if the Woolworth sign remained visible somewhere, and a mention of the building’s place in civil-rights history could be integrated into the Alamo Museum area.

syerkes@localcommunitynews.com

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