Drugstores and the Color Line: Remembering Pharmacies as Sites of the Civil Rights Movement

tags: civil rights, sit-ins, Drug Stores, Retail businesses, direct action

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of Points posts during February in honor of Black History Month. Today’s article comes from managing editor Greg Bond, the Assistant Director of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy and the Senior Editor of History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals.

On August 6, 1894, Abraham D. Cecil, an African American painter and interior decorator from Bloomington, Illinois, visited the drugstore of Hamer H. Green and ordered a glass of cherry phosphate soda. Green, the former President of the Illinois State Board of Pharmacy, drew the color line and refused to serve his African American customer.

Cecil promptly sued Green for violating his civil rights. In a decision eventually upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court, however, state courts ruled that a drugstore soda fountain was “private… [and] exclusive” and not a “public accommodation.” The courts thus affirmed the defendant’s right to refuse service to African Americans (Cecil v. Green, 69 Ill. App. 61l; Cecil v. Green, 161 Ill. 265).

Abraham Cecil was not alone. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, drugstores and pharmacies were frequently sites of civil rights activism as African Americans protested the color line and fought against unequal treatment. Particularly as drugstore soda fountains and lunch counters became common throughout the country, African Americans repeatedly turned to the courts or engaged in direct actions like sit-ins, pickets, and boycotts to challenge Jim Crow in the drugstore.

Although scholars have rightly examined in detail the pivotal role of the broader sit-in movement and of protests at department stores, the importance of drugstores and pharmacies as sites of civil rights protest and activism has been much less studied. Like department stores, pharmacies peddled a wide array of commercial goods and also served the public at their ubiquitous soda fountains and lunch counters. Unlike department stores, though, drugstores also filled prescriptions, sold medicines, and provided important public health information.

Most drugstores only drew the color line at their lunch counters or soda fountains and happily sold drugs, medicines, and other products to African Americans. But many intriguing historical questions remain unanswered. Did drugstores’ public health role inform protests against discriminatory treatment? Did pharmacy ethics or pharmacy professional organizations confront the color line? Did sit-in campaigns against drugstores differ from similar actions against department stores or other businesses? Were there similarities and differences between protests against community pharmacies, local chain drugstores, and regional chain drugstores?

This short post will not be able to provide definitive answers, but it illustrates that the long, rich, and vital history of civil rights activism in drugstores deserves further study.

Read entire article at Points