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Baltimore, MD, students sit-in to integrate Read's drug stores, USA, 1955
A Read’s Drug Store was built at the corner of Howard and Lexington Streets in 1934, when it was first praised as a local landmark and the modern flagship store for the chain. The store was located at the center of the downtown shopping district and the business grew as Read’s drug store expanded throughout downtown Baltimore and surrounding regions.
Read’s, as well as many of the other downtown businesses in the early 1950s, had a policy of racial segregation at its lunch counters. African-Americans could buy products from the store but they were not allowed service or a place to sit at the lunch counters. However, people were becoming discontent with the institutionalized policies of racial segregation and discrimination in Baltimore businesses. In 1955, a year after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, there was widespread talk of civil rights liberties and desegregation.
This became an issue especially for faculty and students at the nearby Morgan State College, which had a predominantly black student body. A group of Morgan State College student activists were denied service at a nearby Read’s Drug Store in Northwood Shopping Center, and they decided to work together with the Baltimore chapter of CORE (Committee on Racial Equality) to integrate the drug store.
CORE was a group of civil rights activists originally established in 1942 in Chicago. The organization grew rapidly during the American Civil Rights Movement and would become an important group in other civil rights campaigns in the 1960s. The Baltimore chapter of CORE began in 1952, and was headed by Ben Everinghim, originally a history teacher at Edmondson High School.
CORE conducted many successful campaigns to desegregate the lunch counters of K-mart (then called Kresage) and other chain stores in the Baltimore area. In 1954, the group held protests at Grant’s chains stockholder meetings and flagship stores and managed to desegregate many of the Border-South outlets. Thus, the students at Morgan State resolved to work with CORE to integrate Read’s drug store.
On January 20, 1955, a group of student activists from Morgan State and CORE staged a “sit-in” at the Read’s central Howard and Lexington location at the same time another group of Morgan State students held a week-long demonstration at the nearby Read’s in Northwood Shopping Center, although notmuch has been reported on this campaign or the methods used. The sit-in was led by Ben Everinghim, Dean McQuay Kiah and Dr.Helena Hicks of Morgan State, and other students who came to sit at the Read’s lunch counters to demand service.
The sit-in lasted for less than half an hour before the students left voluntarily. The peace was not disturbed and none of the protesters were arrested. However, the students were also denied service at Read’s during the sit-in. Students organized other protests at the same time at several Read’s branches in the area.
This effort led to quick results. Read’s was hurt by the lost business from the sit-in and related protests and quickly declared that it would desegregate the lunch counters. On January 22, the headline of Afro American was “Now Serve All”, and the article quoted Read’s President Arthur Nattans Sr. saying, “We will serve all customers throughout our entire stores, including the fountains, and this becomes effective immediately”.
The Baltimore sit-in at Read’s predated the more famous sit-in in Greenboro, NC that took place in 1960 (see “Greensboro, NC, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”), and served as a model for sit-in movements during the Civil Rights Era that many campuses used to protest segregation. In Baltimore, Morgan State College students would stay active in the civil rights movement and later organize more sit-ins and protests to integrate businesses downtown with CIG (Civil Interest Group).