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Drugstores and the Color Line: Remembering Pharmacies as Sites of the Civil Rights Movement

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of Points posts during February in honor of Black History Month. Today’s article comes from managing editor Greg Bond, the Assistant Director of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy and the Senior Editor of History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals.

Oklahoma City Katz Drug Store Sit-in

Seven-year-old Ayanna Najuma looks at the camera during a 1958 NAACP Youth Council sit-in at the segregated lunch counter of Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. Katz integrated its counter after two days of protests. Image courtesy of the Melton Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

On August 6, 1894, Abraham D. Cecil, an African American painter and interior decorator from Bloomington, Illinois, visited the drugstore of Hamer H. Green and ordered a glass of cherry phosphate soda. Green, the former President of the Illinois State Board of Pharmacy, drew the color line and refused to serve his African American customer.

Cecil promptly sued Green for violating his civil rights. In a decision eventually upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court, however, state courts ruled that a drugstore soda fountain was “private… [and] exclusive” and not a “public accommodation.” The courts thus affirmed the defendant’s right to refuse service to African Americans (Cecil v. Green, 69 Ill. App. 61l; Cecil v. Green, 161 Ill. 265).

Abraham Cecil was not alone. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, drugstores and pharmacies were frequently sites of civil rights activism as African Americans protested the color line and fought against unequal treatment. Particularly as drugstore soda fountains and lunch counters became common throughout the country, African Americans repeatedly turned to the courts or engaged in direct actions like sit-ins, pickets, and boycotts to challenge Jim Crow in the drugstore.

Although scholars have rightly examined in detail the pivotal role of the broader sit-in movement and of protests at department stores, the importance of drugstores and pharmacies as sites of civil rights protest and activism has been much less studied. Like department stores, pharmacies peddled a wide array of commercial goods and also served the public at their ubiquitous soda fountains and lunch counters. Unlike department stores, though, drugstores also filled prescriptions, sold medicines, and provided important public health information.

Most drugstores only drew the color line at their lunch counters or soda fountains and happily sold drugs, medicines, and other products to African Americans. But many intriguing historical questions remain unanswered. Did drugstores’ public health role inform protests against discriminatory treatment? Did pharmacy ethics or pharmacy professional organizations confront the color line? Did sit-in campaigns against drugstores differ from similar actions against department stores or other businesses? Were there similarities and differences between protests against community pharmacies, local chain drugstores, and regional chain drugstores?

This short post will not be able to provide definitive answers, but it illustrates that the long, rich, and vital history of civil rights activism in drugstores deserves further study.

In response to the final resolution of Abraham Cecil’s court case in 1896, the pharmaceutical trade press was broadly supportive of the drugstore color line. The Western Druggist, for example, derided Cecil as “a particularly odious son of Africa” and praised the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court for affirming “the right of every druggist to sell soda water with due discrimination as to race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The journal concluded that “Mr. H. H. Green of Bloomington is entitled to thanks of the drug trade” for establishing the precedent. (Western Druggist May 1896).

The American Druggist, meanwhile, decided that the decision was “at heart in accordance with the popular idea of justice” and editorialized that a druggist “follows a natural law in refusing to… sell… to negroes” (American Druggist June 25, 1896).

Segregated drugstore soda fountains and lunch counters became increasingly commonplace around the country in the twentieth century. One June 8, 1921, Smallwood Goss and James Woodson, two young African American men, visited the busy soda fountain of the Savage Pharmacy in Spokane, Washington, but owner Walter E. Savage refused them service.

Spokane Chronicle 1922 Article

Spokane Chronicle article (Nov. 15, 1922) about the Goss v. Savage lawsuit.

Goss and Woodson alleged that Savage subjected them to “ridicule and great humiliation” in front of a large crowd of customers, and they sued him for $2,500 apiece in damages for violating their civil rights. The Washington state Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of the defendant on the familiar grounds that a drugstore was a “private business” and not a “public place” as described in state civil rights law (Spokane Chronicle July 1, 1921, and Nov. 15, 1922).

By the late 1940s, African American activists had learned that they were unlikely to receive favorable rulings in most courts, and they began adopting a different strategy. The Katz Drug Store chain in Des Moines, Iowa, for example, had long maintained a strict color line at its lunch counters despite repeated attempts by local African Americans to desegregate the stores. Noah Lawrence explains in his fascinating 2008 article, “Since it is my right, I would like to have it: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement,” (from which this summary is drawn) that between 1931 and 1947, Katz fended off 3 separate criminal prosecutions and 14 different civil lawsuits brought by African Americans seeking to force desegregation.

On July 7, 1948, 39-year old Edna Griffin, an African American graduate student at Drake University, accompanied two friends to the Katz lunch counter to order ice cream. After the manager refused to serve the three African Americans, Griffin set in motion an 18-month campaign to raise awareness about ongoing discrimination and to actively confront Katz’s color line with a combination of criminal lawsuits, civil lawsuits, and, as importantly, direct action in the form of pickets, boycotts, and sit-ins.

Supported by the local NAACP, Griffin’s protesters distributed brochures explaining that:

Edna Griffin Picketing

Edna Griffin pickets Katz Drug Store in Des Moines with a sign reading, “Counter Service for Whites Only. This is Hitler’s Old Baloney. Don’t Buy At Katz.” Source: Des Moines Register.

A lawsuit is pending against Katz Drugstore, but we want you to know why Jim Crow undermines the rights of every citizen, not just the victims. The “master race” idea poisons the mind with hate, distrust, and suspicion. This turns the minds of the people from high prices, low wages, and no housing to violence against one another. It happened in Germany, and it can happen here” (Lawrence, p. 320).

At the same time, picketers in front of the store carried signs with slogans like “Counter Service for Whites Only / This is Hitler’s Old Baloney / Don’t Buy at Katz.” After more than a year of dogged protests, Katz finally relented and dropped its color line on December 2, 1949, and began serving all customers at its lunch counters (Lawrence, p. 320).

Over the next fifteen years, the sit-in movement slowly moved south, and African Americans in more cities began to challenge drugstore color lines. In May 1954, the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) approached the management of Read’s Drug Stores, which operated 39 branches in the city, about desegregating the company’s lunch counters and soda fountains.

After negotiations stalled and a letter-writing campaign was unsuccessful, CORE activists and students from Morgan State, a local all-Black college, initiated a sit-in campaign at several Read’s stores on January 6, 1955. After two weeks of sit-ins and protests, the chain dropped its color line and announced it would “serve all customers throughout our entire stores… effective immediately” (Baltimore Afro-American Jan. 22, 1955).

Such targeted civil rights actions spread around the country as African Americans personally and directly challenged the discriminatory policies of drugstores and pharmacies. In the summer of 1958, members of the Wichita chapter of the NAACP Youth Council set their sights on the color line at the lunch counter of the Dockum Drug Store in downtown Wichita.

Starting on July 19, high school and college students quietly occupied lunch-counter stools and asked to be served two days each week. On at least one occasion, white counter-protesters verbally harassed and spit at the demonstrators, but the Youth Council members persevered. On August 10, the manager of Dockum capitulated and changed his policy, saying simply: “Serve them. I’m losing too much money” (Gretchen Cassel Eick, Dissent in Wichita, chapter 1).

Arlington Lunch Counter Closed

Manager of a People’s Drug Store in Arlington, Virginia, closes the lunch counter and removes seats during a 1960 sit-in. Most Arlington lunch counters integrated after two weeks of protests. Image courtesy of: Washington Area Spark.

Over the next few years, sit-in campaigns succeeded quickly against pharmacies in places like Oklahoma City and Arlington, Virginia. As the movement spread to the more intransigent Deep South, however, drugstore owners successfully resisted the protests, and demonstrators often encountered threats, harassment, and arrest.

In March 1960, for instance, college students Simon Bouie and Talmadge Neal were arrested for leading a sit-in protest at an Eckerd Drug Store in Columbia, South Carolina (follow the link to see tv news coverage of the arrests). In 1962, police in Orlando, Florida, arrested 11 African American teenagers for demanding service at Stroud’s Rexall Pharmacy, and, in 1963, 17 members of the local NAACP Youth Chapter went to jail for sitting in at Liggett’s Drug Store in Warner Robbins, Georgia.

One of the longest running battles occurred in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. High school students first conducted sit-ins at the segregated lunch counter of the Colonial Drug Co. in February 1960, but owner John Carswell adamantly refused to desegregate for the next four years.

After frequent protests, pickets, and arrests, Carswell took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper, declaring “we will not be intimidated or coerced by certain alphabetical organizations or committees under the disguise of ‘Betterment of Certain Groups or Races.’” In turn, African American activists escalated their protests in 1964 by blocking the entrance to Colonial Drug. Carswell did not drop his color line until later that year, and only because the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in public accommodations.

Protesters arrested at Colonial Drug

Chapel Hill police arrest protesters blocking the entrance to Colonial Drug in 1964. Image courtesy of Marian Cheek Jackson Center Oral History Trust.

During the two decades before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, national pharmacy professional associations and state pharmacy organizations, alike, appear to have paid scant attention to the issue of Jim Crow in drugstores. Although drugstore sit-ins and protests received increasing media coverage and public notice—especially in the early 1960s—leaders of the pharmacy profession seem to have largely overlooked the contentious issue and provided little guidance or commentary on the subject.

Not all observers were so quiet. In a blistering March 1960 editorial, The Crisis, the official journal of the NAACP, reminded “those Americans who genuinely believe in democracy” about the importance of the sit-in movement:

Negro students in the South are justifiably in revolt against lunch-counter jim crow. To deny an American citizen access to a public lunch counter is senseless and demeaning… [T]he Negro knows very well the meaning of jim crow. For him it is ever present, an obscene daily reality… He cannot straw-sip a Coca-Cola at a soda bar. He cannot drink a Bromo-Seltzer for his headache in a drug store… These are galling grievances. He is set apart… [and] he is not allowed to live or work or play as others. The Crisis, March 1960


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