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Black History Month, Read’s Drug Store, and the UMSSW

Read's Drug Store

As Black History Month closes for 2019, we are reminded of the painful legacy of 400 years of slavery, in the U.S., and the aftermath of structural racism and enduring racial inequality. This is also a time to reflect on some of our paths of progress. One aspect of our local history that has been underappreciated is the significant role of Read’s Drug store—just 4 blocks from the SSW(at the corner of Howard and Lexington)—iin the early 1950s. Read’s was a large statewide chain with more than 30 restaurants (aka, lunch counters). Although sit ins to protest the segregated nature of these lunch counters started in 1953 in and around Baltimore, the first publicized sit ins to desegregate Reads occurred in 1955 (five years before the more famous sit ins in Greensboro, NC). The Read's store in downtown Baltimore (at Lexington St. and Howard St.) was the place that students at Morgan State University joined up with a local chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality(CORE) to conduct a demonstration on January 20, 1955 to demand integration. The event was peaceful and lasted for only half an hour. According to Dr. Helena Hicks, a participant in the protest and now a commissioner on the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, the protest consisted of seven people who decided mostly spontaneously to enter the drug store. The NAACP confirmed that this was the first sit-in of its kind. Two days later, the store was officially desegregated.

Arthur Nattans, Sr., then President of Read's, ran an announcement in the Baltimore Afro-American stating “We will serve all customers throughout our entire stores, including the fountains, and this becomes effective immediately.” More than 30 other Read’s stores across Maryland were also desegregated along with another smaller chain owned by the Nattans.

The School of Social Work was founded in an old warehouse on the UMB campus, six years later. Rabbi Louis Kaplan, Chair of the University of Maryland Regents, fought hard to make sure that the new UM SSW was located here in Baltimore, rather than in UM College Park which had no history of fighting for racial equality, in those years. It would not be surprising to learn that the momentum generated by the Morgan State students and the local CORE chapter in downtown Baltimore helped to set the stage for situating the School of Social Work in Baltimore. For the vision and courage of our forbearers and the great value that being in Baltimore adds to our school we can all be deeply grateful.

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