56 years later, students again protest at Read's drug store

Picketers oppose demolition of building

February 12, 2011|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Khalil Reid, an African-American student at City Neighbors Charter School, said he has never been denied service at a restaurant because of the color of his skin. He hasn't been turned away at a department store or movie theater either.

But he didn't like finding out that was the case for others years ago.

On Saturday, the sixth-grader was one of 40 City Neighbors students who formed a picket line at the former Read's drug store at Howard and Lexington streets in Baltimore, where African-Americans were denied lunch counter service in the 1950s.

A developer wants to tear down the store to make way for a $150 million development called Lexington Square. Reid and his schoolmates were marching to show support for preservationists and civil rights leaders who are trying to save the building as a landmark in American civil rights history. They want it to be a monument to the people who fought against discrimination by holding a peaceful sit-in there in January 1955, five years before the more-famous lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C.

"There was a time when we weren't able to sit at the lunch counter," Reid said. "I'm here to respect our past, so people won't forget it."

The students were joined by Helena Hicks, 76, one of the college students who took part in the 1955 Read's sit-in; representatives from Morgan State University, the institution Hicks attended; and members of Baltimore Heritage, a preservation advocacy group.

The picket line was the idea of Peter French, a City Neighbors social studies teacher for grades six, seven and eight. For the current trimester, French wanted to teach students about civil disobedience in the Jim Crow era, especially in Baltimore.

After reading newspaper articles about the endangered Read's store, French said, he thought that teaching students about the building's history and visiting the site would be a perfect way to localize the civil rights issue for them. "We decided to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Hicks, who made our life better," he said. "That's why we're here today."

Besides the picketing effort, which was treated as a voluntary field trip, the students are role-playing to imagine what it was like to be a Morgan student during a sit-in and interviewing people who have taken took part in civil rights demonstrations.

"It was a good event and the kids loved it," French said after the protest. Besides, "I don't like being in the classroom."

Watching the students outside Read's, Hicks said their picketing has helped bring the 1955 sit-in to life so future generations can understand what the Morgan students went through.

"That's what is so good about this," she said. "This may have been a bad experience for me years ago, but it can turn into something good if we don't let the story die. Things will only get better if we make them better."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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