Hidden History in the East End: Bringing New Life into Palmer Pharmacy
The corner of Lexington's Fifth and Chestnut streets is home to history. That history — a striking baby blue-accented building with a Modernist architectural style and boarded-up windows — is what was once Palmer Pharmacy, one of the city's first Black-owned pharmacies.
The legacy of Palmer Pharmacy wouldn't exist if it weren't for the man responsible for its creation, though.
Dr. Zirl Palmer was born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia, nearly three decades before the height of the civil rights movement. Palmer earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and mathematics at Bluefield State College.
However, West Virginia didn't allow Black students to attend professional school during this time, pushing an untiring Palmer to move to New Orleans and attend the College of Pharmacy at Xavier University of Louisiana. Palmer managed to have the state of West Virginia (the very same place that denied his professional education) pay for his train fare and part of his tuition, eventually earning his master's degree at XULA.
After serving in World War II, Palmer said he came to Lexington in 1951 with the intention of carving his path to success as a pharmacist during a time in which segregation was prevalent.
"My reason for coming here was they had roughly nine Black physicians and four dentists but no Black pharmacists," Palmer said in a 1978 interview with Edward Owens of Lexington's Urban League, provided by courtesy of the University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. "Segregation really prevailed then and I thought that if I came to an area where they had that many physicians as well as dentists that I couldn't miss as far as making a success in the drug business."
Palmer's first pharmacy opened in the mid-1950s and sat on the corner of Fifth and Race streets. He spent five years at his first building before he opened the second location — Palmer's Pharmacy, Luncheonette, and Doctor's Office — just down the road on Fifth and Chestnut streets in 1961.
Palmer's Pharmacy, Luncheonette, and Doctor's Office was the first Black-owned Rexall franchise drugstore in the United States. The pharmacy soon became a hub for Lexington's East End community, offering not only a place where people could pick up their prescriptions but also stop by for refreshments at its soda fountain and lunch counter. The oasis Palmer created with his pharmacy didn't seem all that attainable when he first arrived in Lexington, but the success of his second location breathed new life into a community that had since been overpowered by segregation.
"When I came here, there wasn't any place where a Black person could sit down and drink a soda," Palmer said in the 1978 interview. "People used to line up at the soda fountain all the way out the door waiting to sit down at the soda fountain."
Palmer opened a third pharmacy on Georgetown Street following the success of his other two locations. However, Palmer's newest location was the target of a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1968, an already tumultuous year in the civil rights movement.
The bombing of the Georgetown Street location left Palmer, his wife Marian and their four-year-old daughter Andrea trapped in rubble for hours before being hospitalized along with five others. Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Philip J. Campbell was convicted of the bombing in 1970, but the damage to Palmer, his family and his business was already done.
"It's a very, very frustrating thing to be afraid to go to bed, afraid to get up, afraid to start your car, you know, afraid of everybody you see that they're going to knock you out," Palmer said of the bombing in the 1978 interview.
Alarmed by the bombing and fearful for the safety of his family, Palmer retired and sold his businesses. Despite no longer operating his drugstores, Palmer continued to be a vital member of the city of Lexington and a civil rights pioneer until his death in 1982. He was the first Black member of the UK Board of Trustees, and he was active in committees like the Civic Center Board and the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.
Today, the baby blue-accented building on Fifth and Chestnut streets is the only former Palmer Pharmacy location still standing.
After being sold by Palmer, the building most notably served as the home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington's Catholic Action Center from 2000-2016. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government acquired the Palmer Pharmacy building in 2016 and slated it for demolition the following year. Demolition never occurred, though, and the building has remained vacant and in poor shape since then, according to a Lexington organization working to renovate the building.
That organization, The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, is aiming to preserve Palmer Pharmacy and the legacy that the building represents.
Founded in 1955, The Blue Grass Trust's mission is to save and promote the special, historic places essential to Central Kentucky, and Palmer Pharmacy is one of those.
The Blue Grass Trust had been following the state of the pharmacy for some time before they decided to submit a grant proposal to the National Historic Trust for Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which was established in 2017 to preserve and protect Black historic sites that have been overlooked. The Blue Grass Trust's proposal was successful, and Palmer Pharmacy was one of the 40 historic sites chosen to receive a $50,000 grant in July 2021.
On top of the grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, $350,000 has already been allotted to the preservation effort by the city. The Blue Grass Trust will use the funds they've obtained through national and local grants as well as third parties to renovate the building.
Executive Director of The Blue Grass Trust Jonathan Coleman stresses the importance of his organization's efforts to preserve Palmer Pharmacy.
"When you have buildings that become sort of derelict, empty, that sort of thing. It's kind of like a hole in that community," Coleman said.
The Blue Grass Trust is using its resources to not only preserve Palmer Pharmacy itself and offset repair costs but also to promote the story of the building, Coleman said. The non-profit has added signs on the exterior of the former pharmacy that detail its history, and they've helped in the search for a new tenant for the building.
Coleman and The Blue Grass Trust recognize the cultural significance of preserving a building like Palmer Pharmacy, acknowledging that the building represents stories of equality and racial justice.
"It embodies an important story in Lexington's past, and that is the story of Black Kentuckians fighting for greater equality, greater freedoms and for natural rights as American citizens, and of course, Dr. Palmer was central to that story in Central Kentucky," Coleman said. "So while it is a very cool building, it is also an embodiment of a very important story, not only in Lexington history but of course, in the history of our nation."
Not only in the case of Palmer Pharmacy but also with historic preservation in general, Coleman said efforts like these support social and economic equity, particularly in marginalized communities.
Telling and preserving the stories of individuals like Palmer and representing broader communities and neighborhoods "helps to make our pasts a little more present," Coleman said.
The preservation and rehabilitation of Palmer Pharmacy is not an overnight task, but things appear to be looking up for the building — which could be well on its way to making its return as a significant fixture in Lexington communities, according to Coleman.
"The city seems to be moving forward with a new tenant, things are going really well and we look forward to seeing the building restored and once again a vital part of Lexington's East End," Coleman said.
Historical information regarding Dr. Zirl Palmer and Palmer Pharmacy was obtained from The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation's website.