Chanting “One, Two, Three, Four – Save Read’s Drug Store!” a group of about 40 students from Baltimore’s City Neighbors Charter School picketed Saturday in front of the former Read’s Drug Store, the site of a 1955 protest by African-American students that forced the chain to serve blacks at its lunch counters.
A redevelopment plan for downtown Baltimore’s struggling west side, supported by some city and state officials, would demolish this building, among others. The students and their teacher came out on a chilly Saturday to say that wouldn’t be right.
“This place is the site of the first successful sit-in to end segregation in the country!” said Peter French, the City Neighbors social studies teacher who brought the students.
Preservationists, pointing out that the Read’s protest predates the more famous 1960 Greensboro, N.C. Woolworth’s sit-in, have been trying to call attention to the building’s Civil Rights history as they mount a campaign to stop demolition of a group of buildings they say have historic and architectural significance.
The developer says it is not cost-effective to save all the old buildings in the so-called Superblock, in part because they are not easily converted into the kinds of mid-sized stores — such as TJ Maxx or Bed Bath and Beyond — that they hope to attract.
Advocates of the Lexington Square project, including the Baltimore Development Corporation, say redevelopment is desperately needed in the blighted area and argue that a plaque might be sufficient to commemorate the Read’s sit-in history.
Groups like Baltimore Heritage, present at Saturday’s protest, say preservation should be at the center of any downtown redevelopment strategy. That seemed to be the position of the chanting students, who carried signs that said “Save Our History” and “Honk for civil rights” and “Don’t Tear Down Our History.”
After circling the block, the students picketed in front of the now-boarded-up Read’s, at Howard and Lexington streets.
Among those who came out to support them was one of the original protesters, Helena Hicks, who today, at 76, is a member of the Baltimore Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation. In 1955, though, she was simply a Morgan College student (as she recalled it recently on WEAA’s Marc Steiner Show) who wanted to sit down at the Read’s and eat something and couldn’t, because of the color of her skin.
“We could go in Read’s and buy a pack of cigarettes or a pack of gum, but you’re hungry and you can’t sit down. It might be cold, it might be raining, it might be snowing and you can’t sit down and drink a hot cup of coffee or cocoa or tea or anything,” said Hicks. “And so I guess you get to the point . . . people just collectively are sick of it.”
— Many thanks to Gabriela Bulisova’s MICA students for these photos.