News & Politics

When the Alamo Gets Its Own Civil Rights History Wrong

(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Folks make a lot of claims about the Alamo so I’ve written a few Alamo-related fact checks recently. Here’s one concerning a recent claim that Santa Anna, the dictator who launched several massacres, had a black regiment fighting in Texas in 1836. He didn’t.

On its Facebook page, the Alamo published this note hailing a donation that Bexar County is giving to the project to build the Shrine of Texas Liberty a museum.

Topics explored in the museum exhibits will include the Battle of the Alamo, the Texas Revolution, the rise of Texas as a nation and the Alamo’s lasting significance in history, indigenous history in the region, and the San Antonio Civil Rights movement in the space where it happened in the Woolworth building (emphasis added)

The San Antonio Civil Rights movement claim requires some unpacking. There has long been a local story in San Antonio that the first lunch counter that desegregated in Texas — in the south beyond Greensboro, North Carolina actually — was in the Woolworth Building in San Antonio. That building is currently owned by the state and is the site of one of the Ripley’s tourist attractions. Plans call for that building and the two attached to it to be used for the new Alamo museum. I fully support this. The Alamo has long deserved a museum. The businesses in the Woolworth and the other buildings attached to it also deserve some clarity as to where they will relocate.

Those buildings, collectively known as the Crockett Block, stand on what was the site of the Alamo’s western fortress wall during the famous battle. William Barret Travis also wrote the famous “Victory or Death!” letter in the Trevino house, which was in that wall. So it’s a very important space. The wall was demolished after the battle and has been lost to the growth of downtown over time. It’s no one’s fault. Life happens, especially when Texas was just growing up and preservation wasn’t yet a value.

The claim that the desegregation event happened in the Woolworth is being used to force the inclusion of a civil rights section in the Alamo museum. The Alamo itself, as you can see above, now perpetuates that story.

The problem is, the story was studied and found to be false. The first desegregated lunch counter in Texas was in Corpus Christi, not San Antonio. The first formally desegregated lunch counter in San Antonio was in the Kress Building down the street from the Alamo, not the Woolworth. The nearby Sears had quietly desegregated around 1952, years before either the Kress or the Woolworth. And the Woolworth lunch counter itself has been gone for decades. No one uttered a peep when it was demolished to make way for businesses decades ago.*

There is a standing offer to house a desegregation exhibit where history happened — in the Kress Building. This seems appropriate. When you can, memorializing history where it happened is the proper way to go.

The full report about the Woolworth and the Kress is posted on the Alamo’s own website, right here. Dr. Carey Latimore, associate professor of history at Trinity University, conducted the study. His findings regarding the Kress Building are on page 7. It’s a downloadable PDF, very well written and easy to read.

The Alamo was a key site in the long fight for civil rights, but that was in 1835-36, not in the 1960s. Santa Anna had tossed out Mexico’s federalist 1824 constitution, and with it, the civil rights of Mexican citizens. Mexico had been an independent federalist republic prior to that. Native-born Tejanos and legal immigrants to Texas in that period were Mexican citizens and therefore lost many of their civil rights. The rebellions that flared up across Mexico including Texas in 1835 at first sought to restore the civil rights Santa Anna abrogated when he became dictator. Many high-ranking Mexican officials joined the rebellions. One personally led an army in the field against Santa Anna. Texas declared independence on March 2, 1836, and won it on April 21, 1836, at San Jacinto. Some today claim that the revolution was fought to preserve slavery. Slavery isn’t mentioned in the Texas Declaration of Independence.

Desegregation was a noble effort, and San Antonio has an honorable history in leading desegregation that’s worthy of note. But according to Dr. Latimore, it didn’t happen at the Woolworth. It happened at the Kress. Mr. Alamo concurs.

Alamo myths die hard. Especially when the Alamo itself perpetuates them.

*This article originally stated that the lunch counter was demolished to make way for the Ripley’s that’s in the building today. It was actually demolished years before that.