African-American students at that time could "go into Read's and buy a pack of cigarettes or a pack of gum," Hicks said. "But you couldn't buy a cup of coffee or tea or anything."
It was one year after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, which led to the desegregation of U.S. public schools, and talk of civil rights was ubiquitous. "We felt like we needed to keep the ball rolling," Hicks said.
While the students waited for the bus, a plan took shape: They would go inside to the drugstore's lunch counter, which served only whites. "We just thought, 'We're going to go in and sit down and see what happens,'" Hicks said.
She said the students entered Read's and headed for the first-floor lunch counter, where they took seats to indicate they wanted service. Right away, the store's manager approached and said the students would not be served, in keeping with Read's policy, warning he would call the police if they didn't leave, according to Hicks.
Hicks said the students "stayed for a while," conferring about what to do. Most were upperclassmen and didn't want to jeopardize their chances of graduating by being arrested. "At that point in time people could only be pressed so hard," Hicks said. "Pine Street [police] station was three blocks away. … We could only do so much. … We had no legal right to be there."
Eventually, the students got up and headed for the door. "We left voluntarily," Hicks said. "We wanted to be served, but we didn't want to go to jail."
The impromptu sit-in had lasted less than half an hour. The peace was not disturbed. No one was arrested. But no one was served, either.
Within days of the downtown sit-in — and after various protests at other Read's branches — the retail chain announced that it was changing its policy.
That change in policy got a one-sentence mention in The Sun, on Jan. 18, 1955, in an article about desegregation in the region. A longer article appeared on Jan. 22 in the Afro-American newspaper.
The Rev. Douglas Sands, a minister in Sykesville who graduated from Morgan in 1956, said he didn't take part in the Howard Street sit-in but remembers hearing about it. He said he lived on campus and took part in sit-ins at the Read's lunch counter at Loch Raven Boulevard and Cold Spring Lane, the Read's store closest to the Morgan campus. Students staged frequent sit-ins there, he said, adding that light-skinned black students would be sent in to see if they would be served.
Unlike the more orchestrated student protests of the 1960s, many of the early civil rights demonstrations by students were "spontaneous things, not incidents organized for public consumption," Sands said, noting that other local targets included the Northwood Shopping Center's movie theater and the Arundel ice cream store.
"It was something we did repeatedly," he said of the sit-ins. "It was a way for us to make a protest."
The Lexington Square developers say they were unaware of the Read's building's history until recently. Starting in December, information about the sit-in was disseminated by Baltimore Heritage, a preservation group that has been studying the history of all the buildings around Howard and Lexington streets to make a case for their preservation.
While the sit-in is getting attention now, there is no consensus about how to commemorate what happened. The interior of the former Read's building has deteriorated over the years and no longer contains the lunch counter, stools or any other remnants from 1955.
Joe Nattans, grandson of the former owner of Read's, suggests that the building be redeveloped as a working pharmacy and museum that replicates the store as it was in 1955. He suggests that the second floor contain a drugstore run by the pharmacy school at the University of Maryland or the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, and that the location also feature "site-specific memorabilia and souvenirs."
In a January meeting of Baltimore's urban design and architectural review panel, the Lexington Square development team suggested saving two architectural details and a flagpole from the building — an offer one opponent later dismissed as a "lollipop" meant to appease preservationists.
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., told directors of his board in January that ideas under consideration were to create exhibits at the Reginald F. Lewis museum, the Morgan State University campus and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. He said the city remains open to other ideas.
Some have suggested that Baltimore's preservation commission, which is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the Lexington Square plan on Feb. 16, designate the Read's building a city landmark to protect it from demolition.
Terry, the museum director, says he is not in a position to recommend what should happen to the building but says he's happy to have the chance to discuss its importance to Baltimore.
"The hardest history to understand is history that happens in your own lifetime, because you don't have the proper perspective," he said.
"This project has been wonderful for the conversation it has started," Terry said. "If you want to understand Baltimore history, the understanding starts at the corner of Howard and Lexington streets."