In January 1955, Morgan State College students staged an impromptu sit-in at the lunch counter of the Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington streets in Baltimore, demanding that African-Americans be served.
Their protest, along with others at local Read's stores, worked: That month, the retail chain began serving all patrons, black and white, at all of its 37 Baltimore-area lunch counters. But the students' victory has been largely overlooked in the annals of U.S. civil rights history, in part because it was not photographed or widely reported by the mainstream news media.
More than 55 years later, the Read's protest is getting more attention than it ever did in 1955, as local preservationists and civil rights leaders wage yet another battle, this time to save the building where the protesters took a stand — by taking a seat.
An out-of-town developer wants to raze the vacant building and other structures on the block to make way for a $150 million project called Lexington Square. That has sparked new interest in the building and the role it played in desegregation. City and state agencies have held public hearings about the building. A preservation group, Baltimore Heritage, has been leading tours of the block.
Radio talk-show hosts have devoted air time to discussing the sit-in. And the 1955 event and Baltimore's civil rights heritage will be discussed today at a forum at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, part of the museum's Black History Month celebrations.
On Saturday, students from City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore will picket the Read's site to urge that the building be preserved. Peter French, a social studies teacher, is organizing the event as part of a class project on civil disobedience during the Jim Crow era. He said the Read's controversy gives educators a rare chance to teach students how local protesters used peaceful measures to change discriminatory practices.
"This is history that our students in Baltimore aren't generally aware of," French said. "They are very familiar with the national civil rights movement — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But things that happened right here they aren't aware of."
French said the Read's sit-in is a "perfect metaphor" for how easily information about the local civil rights movement can be lost. "If we let the Read's drugstore go down," he said, "we're going to let all this history disappear."
The Read's discussion is valuable because it sheds light on a period of civil rights activity before King came to national prominence and the media began paying attention to the issue, said David Taft Terry, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis museum. In the 1950s, lunch counters were among the only locations where blacks and whites mingled in public, he said.
"When you talk about shared public space, it was the lunch counters and the restaurants and the movie theaters," Terry said. "And it was the success of the sit-ins that opened these lunch counters" to African-Americans.
The public debate over Read's also shows how U.S. values have changed when it comes to what is considered historic and worth preserving, he said. "For many years, preservationists focused on the middle and upper class," Terry said. "It's only recently that we've begun to unpack our memories and think about things differently."
Preservationists say the Read's building, which is now city-owned and boarded up, should be saved as landmark.
Because the Read's sit-in occurred five years before a more famous lunch counter protest at an F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. — which provided a model for peaceful protests around the country — the Read's building is more than just a piece of Baltimore history, civil rights leaders say. "It's a national treasure," said local law professor Larry Gibson.
The Read's building is "a symbol of what African-Americans went through" in the 1950s, said Donald Patterson, a 1956 Morgan State graduate who remembers the downtown sit-in.
"No African-American could eat there. What we went through for today's youngsters to eat at McDonald's or any other place was a tremendous hardship. We were called all kinds of names and everything else. We have to keep some of these symbols alive in the city. We cannot forget what happened then."
Helena Hicks, who sits on Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, will appear at the Reginald F. Lewis museum symposium to discuss her participation in the 1955 Read's sit-in. Now 76 and retired after working as an administrator for the city and state, Hicks still remembers how the event unfolded.
A Morgan State student, Hicks was waiting for a bus at Howard and Lexington streets with six to eight other students headed to the campus, now Morgan State University. It was shortly after noon and the students were cold and hungry.