If you’ve been following the news in Baltimore lately, you know that a major campaign is underway to save the Read’s Drug Store building from demolition. Part of the West Baltimore downtown shopping district “Superblock” slated for redevelopment, Read’s was the site of an historic civil rights protest in 1955, when a group of Morgan State college students conducted a sit-in at the lunch counter, a full five years before the famous lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.
You can read all about the sit-in at the website of Baltimore Heritage, Inc., one of the groups leading the charge to save this historic building. It’s an exciting story, remarkable both for the inspiring and well-coordinated actions of the Morgan students (concurrent with their protest at Read’s flagship store on Howard and Lexington, they staged demonstrations at a Read’s near the Morgan campus in northeast Baltimore) and for the quick capitulation of Read’s officials. Within two days of the sit-in at the downtown store, a front-page headline in the Afro-American announced a victory. Read’s President Arthur Nattans Sr. stated that “We will serve all customers throughout our entire stores, including the fountains, and this becomes effective immediately.”
Read’s Drug Store had been owned by the Nattans family since 1899, when Arthur Sr.’s father purchased the original downtown store from druggist William Read. A German Jewish family that had first settled in Washington, D.C., the Nattans moved to Baltimore and became active in Jewish institutions such as the Suburban Club and Levindale. By 1934, the family had forty drugstores in operation in the Baltimore-D.C. area. That year, the Nattans completely rebuilt and remodeled the original Read’s into the Art Deco building that exists under threat of demolition today. The family sold its chain to Rite Aid in 1977.
Because the family kept the original Read’s name on its stores, the chain’s Jewish ownership has been somewhat obscured. The Nattans belong in the same category as the Hutzlers, Gutmans, Hoschchilds, Kohns, Hechts, Epsteins—retailers who made an indelible mark on the Baltimore scene. And like those other Jewish retailers, the Nattans went along with Baltimore’s Jim Crow traditions until forced to change during the civil rights era. (You can read about discrimination against blacks at Jewish-owned department stores in an excellent article by Paul Kramer, “White Sales,” published in our Enterprising Emporiums catalog back in 2001.)
But the speed with which the Nattans desegregated their lunch counters when confronted by the Morgan students indicates that they might not have been enthusiastic participants in the discriminatory practices that were rampant in Baltimore into the mid twentieth century. Most retailers feared that if they served blacks equally, they would lose their white customers, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that their fears were not unjustified. According to the Afro article mentioned above, when the sit-in began, an unnamed Read’s official called Morgan’s dean and asked him to “Please call your students off. . . . We’re losing business.” The dean refused, and by the end of the conversation, the official told him, “Well, we are in sympathy with this thing—we’ll see what can be done.”
And the rest is history: Baltimore history, civil rights history, even Jewish history. Let’s hope that city officials recognize the importance of the Read’s store—and the other historic buildings on the Superblock—and redevelop the West Side by building on our heritage, not by tearing it down.