Why is the Woolworth Building Downtown Being Singled Out for Preservation?


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So what is the 'Woolworth Building' which has just been recognized by the World Monuments Fund as one of its 25 international monuments worth protecting, along with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris?

1200 WOAI reports its more than a fifties-era downtown five and dime store. In fact, it is one of the most significant locations in San Antonio, despite the fact that there is no monument or plaque on the building that attests to its significant role in American history.

In March of 1960, the Woolworth Building became the first traditional lunch counter in the Old Confederacy to be peacefully and cooperatively desegregated, an event that Civil Rights icon Jackie Robinson said at the time should be 'proclaimed around the world.'

Patti Ziontz, the President of the San Antonio Conservation Society, says the march toward history began with an African American student at Incarnate Word University, Mary Andrews, who convinced the NAACP to write letters urging downtown businesses to break the segregation of the day, and serve Whites and Blacks equally.

"The NAACP sent letters to the places that had lunch countiers, Woolworths, Neisners, Kress's, and others, asking for a peaceful integration so they could got to the lunch counters and be service."

Ziontz says there happened to be at the time, a group of White pastors, including the late Buckner Fanning, who was studying the issue of segregation and had recognized it as evil. She says those pastors helped work out a peaceful solution.

"Mary and some of her friends were able to go to the Woolworth Building, which in a very strategic place downtown, on Alamo Plaza, and be served peacefully, and that is why it is so very important."

At the same time, in cities and towns across the Old South, lunch counters were in the front lines of the fight over civil rights, with sit-ins, tear gassings, and beatings. This didn't mean that there was no racial strife in San Antonio, or that African Americans were instantly treated as equals. The significant part of the San Antonio story, which is what excited Jackie Robinson, is the fact that San Antonio was the first place where it happened by general agreement, not by fits and starts.

"That was the phenominon for the whole thing, that everybody came together, they negotiated, and they peacefully integrated and it was just different from what was happening in other parts of the country."

Ziontz is calling on the designers of the Alamo Plaza renovation to take the history of the Woolworth Building into consideration. The building at Alamo and Houston is now one of the three buildings on the west side of Alamo Plaza which are being considered for demolition to make way for the 'world class museum' meant to house the Phil Collins Alamo Collection.

She says San Antonio's history is more than just the Alamo, and converting the Woolworth Building to a museum of the civil rights era would help recognize the more than a century the Alamo stood before the 1836 battle, and the 183 years it has stood since then, and the rich and diverse history that has helped build this city over that time.