A plan by Lexington Square Partners calls for demolition of… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
There is a new argument as to why the old flagship Read's drugstore in downtown Baltimore must be preserved. I've long argued that the No. 1 of the chain, at Howard and Lexington streets, is an overlooked 1934 architectural gem. Now historians of the civil rights movement in Baltimore have shown the role this building played in the desegregation of 1950s Baltimore.
In 1955, after listening to the members of the Baltimore Committee on Racial Equality, the owners of the Read Drug and Chemical Co. gave the word that as of mid-January, all persons, regardless of race, could be seated and served at its soda fountains and lunch counters.
This turned out to be a victory for the local civil rights movement. Public schools had just integrated. Read's was a privately owned, bustling retailer that dominated downtown and neighborhood sales for medicines and variety goods. Read's was open long hours and was one of the most popular destinations in the city. You did not have to be rich to shop there. When its owners said all people would be served at this business, segregation in Baltimore was never the same again. It was not over; but it had just been seriously challenged by those who made the rules.
The Baltimore Sun's account, published on Jan. 18, 1955, noted recent racial progress in the city. The Sheraton-Belvedere Hotel, at Charles and Chase streets, had just ended segregation; its bar, because of a city liquor license requirement, would remain segregated until the ordinance was changed. Nonwhite artists were allowed to appear on the Lyric's stage, public housing was integrated and several of the Lexington Street five-and-dime stores had opened their lunch counters to all. Change was coming, though it would take another five years before all department store tearooms dropped the race barrier.
News accounts in The Sun and the Afro-American noted the role of students and faculty at Morgan State in the movement. Morgan students sought counter service at the Read's in the Northwood Shopping Center near the school. An account said a black waitress served them, but she was immediately transferred to another store.
CORE held a sit-in at the main store downtown. Its members also had talks with Read executives. Arthur Nattans, president of the drug chain, agreed to drop the race barrier at his eating establishments.
In doing so, Nattans effectively opened dozens of counters beyond those in Northwood and downtown Baltimore. While it saturated the city, Read's had outlets from Westminster to Salisbury.
Read's counters quickly became a mix of all Baltimore residents. The desegregation came easily and showed how well Baltimore handled integration.
Read's set a standard. Before long, all its neighboring retailers, Hochschild's, Hutzler's, the May Co. and Stewart's, opened their restaurant doors to all, an act that would have been unthinkable if someone had not taken the first step.
The Read's building at the southeast corner of Howard and Lexington sits amid a block of structures whose futures have been debated for years. Preservationists have argued their merits while developers want them largely torn down.
The Read's structure is a fine example of 1930s modern architecture, a building whose forward-looking design presaged the forward-looking racial stance of its owners. The legacy of the early civil rights pioneers and the willingness of the Nattans family needs a proper telling. A way to accomplish this is through the retention of Lexington Street's rich, historic character.