Preserving the Palmer Pharmacy – Smiley Pete Publishing
With the help of a recently awarded national grant and other additional funding, one of the city’s first black-owned pharmacy buildings is slated for rehabilitation
In 2017, the National Historic Trust for Preservation launched the African American Cultural Heritage Fund, a campaign designed to “preserve and protect the places that represent activism, success and resilience among African Americans” – places that , according to the organization, are often overlooked in America. the story. From places with strong ties to civil rights history to former homes of famous black artists, more than 150 sites across the country have received campaign funding, which is the largest preservation effort ever to support black historic sites.
In July, the campaign announced a list of 40 national projects that will receive grants this year – a list that includes Palmer’s Pharmacy, a separate Modernist building on the corner of Fifth and Chestnut streets in Lexington that was due to be demolished just four years ago. years. With sky blue accents and boarded up windows, the building is significant not only for its unique, international-style architectural design – commissioned by Dr Zirl Palmer, the pharmacist who purchased the property in 1959 – but also for its historic role as than the former site of one of the city’s first black-owned pharmacies.
Born and raised in West Virginia during the civil rights era, Palmer, who died in 1982, has crossed color barriers his entire life. Because West Virginia did not allow black students to attend vocational school, after graduating from Bluefield State College, he moved to New Orleans to attend Xavier University of Louisiana College of Pharmacy, graduating with successful train tickets and partial tuition aid from the same home state that would not allow him to pursue his dreams within its borders. In 1951, Palmer moved to Lexington with the intention of serving the city’s African-American population during the period of segregation, opening his first pharmacy in the mid-1950s at the corner of Fifth and Race streets. In an oral history interview with Edward Owens of the Lexington Urban League recorded in 1978, Palmer noted that while Lexington had black doctors, dentists, and optometrists at the time, the town did not have black pharmacists. , which made it difficult for the African American community to obtain the medication its residents needed. This fact largely influenced his decision to move to this city to start his business.
In 1961 Palmer opened his second pharmacy, Palmer’s Pharmacy, Luncheonette and Doctor’s Office, at the corner of Fifth and Chestnut streets. In addition to serving as a place for Lexington’s black community to purchase drugs and sundries, Palmer’s new business – America’s first black-owned Rexel Drug Store franchise – included offices for black doctors and a black avocado, as well as a lunch counter and soda fountain that has become an important gathering place for the neighborhood. Palmer noted that when he first arrived in Lexington, there was no place in town where a black person could sit and drink a soda. His vision and perseverance opened doors for his community.
“Black pharmacists were so rare in Lexington that when I got here I couldn’t find an ice cream company that would sell me ice cream,” he said in the interview with Owens. Eventually, Palmer noted, he convinced Dixie Ice Cream Company to sell him ice cream, estimating that his drugstore had sold over 5,000 gallons of ice cream in his first year – a success that helped Dixie win. various local promotional contests.
After several years of growth and success at the Fifth Street site, Palmer opened a new pharmacy on Georgetown Street, but unlike the building currently slated for preservation, there is no vestige of that site left today. In 1968, a tragic and tumultuous year in America, the place was destroyed by a bomb, along with Palmer; his wife, Marian; and their 4 year old daughter inside. The family was trapped in the rubble for hours before being sent to hospital; five others were also hospitalized. The great dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Phillip J. Campbell, was later convicted of the bombing.
Traumatized by the event and fearing for the safety of his family, Palmer closed his business following the bombing, although he continued to be civically active in the Lexington community, with a resume. which includes becoming the first African American to serve on the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees. of trustees. Other civic involvement included running a health care program at his church, West Main Baptist, and serving on boards and committees, including the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, Center Council civic, the Optimist Club, Big Brothers and Community Action Lexington-Fayette.
Today, the Palmer Pharmacy building on Fifth and Chestnut Streets is not only the last remaining physical site in Lexington, signifying Palmer’s tremendous accomplishments and sacrifices, but it is also the last structure in the city built, owned and operated by an African-American pharmacist during the era of segregation. Acquired in 2016 by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government after serving as the site for the Catholic Action Center day shelter for many years, the building has been vacant for years, deteriorating and falling into disrepair. Largely thanks to the efforts of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which worked to bring attention to the property and organized a consortium directly linked to the search for funding and a new use for the building which honor its past, the building has been saved from its currently scheduled demolition. A phased rehabilitation is currently planned, under the leadership of a new nonprofit: Preserving Palmer Place, Inc.
For more information on the building and the efforts to preserve it, visit www.bluegrasstrust.org/dr-zirl-palmer-and-preserving-palmer-place.