A Valentine for Dr. Zirl Palmer

Six years ago, in Buffalo, New York, “heart bombing” was born. The Buffalo Young Preservationists “decided to showcase their love for abandoned and vacant historic buildings in their city by papering them with handmade Valentines.” On Friday, February 16, 2018, at 4 pm, a group of people will shower the Dr. Zirl Palmer Pharmacy Building at 400 East Fifth Street in Lexington with paper hearts, in hopes that the legacy of a quiet and committed community leader can be preserved.

Our heart bombing may not look exactly like this, but…you get the idea.

I first wrote about the Palmer Pharmacy Building in December 2017, when the demolition of the mid-century modern building seemed imminent. Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to that post, and I can happily report that a diverse group of community residents have met three times since December to brainstorm and work together to create a positive ending for the building.

Dr. Zirl Palmer

That work is on-going, and the preservation of the Palmer Pharmacy Building is by no means ensured. But on this Valentine’s Day, it seems entirely appropriate to dedicate a few words to a man whose actions helped positively shape a community. In the course of researching Dr. Palmer’s life and his role in a divided Lexington, what I’ve learned has only increased my respect for his behind-the-scenes work to improve the lives of African American residents.

Section of the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Lexington, showing the location of Dr. Palmer’s first pharmacy at the corner of East Fifth and Race streets.

When Dr. Palmer first moved to Lexington in the early 1950s, he opened a pharmacy at the corner of East 5th and Race Streets in an existing frame building that had always functioned as mixed-use structure, with both living space and commercial space.

His intention from the beginning, it seems, was to expand the traditional idea and role of a pharmacy within the African American community. Palmer’s Pharmacy was more than just a place to get your prescriptions filled – it was a community network and social spot, as well as an unofficial self-improvement program run by Dr. Palmer. It was also a place from which to negotiate the segregation, both official, and unofficial, of Lexington.

The building has been remuddled several times, but the first location of Palmer’s Pharmacy still stands.

Dr. Palmer received his pharmacy degree and training in Louisiana, which had a different approach to the concept of a community pharmacy.  “Down there a number of drug stores collected [the] light bill, the telephone bill, the gas bill, all of these kinds of things and this was a means of getting people to come into your store. That wasn’t being done in Lexington. So I initiated that idea…and a lot of people depended on me if I could help them and if I couldn’t, to refer them to people who could, ” Zirl Palmer, from a 1978 oral history interview archived with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

According to Dr. Palmer, “black pharmacists were such a rarity in Lexington” that when he first arrived, he couldn’t find an ice cream company to sell him ice cream. “Finally…Harold Brookings from Dixie Ice Cream Company…consented to sell me ice cream and after being in business for one year, all of the ice cream companies [sold to me]. I think I sold over 5 thousand gallons of ice cream the first year in business and the salesman from Dixie Ice Cream Company won every promotional contest in the city of Lexington because of the amount of ice cream that he sold me.”

Dr. Palmer and his family lived on North Upper Street for around four years upon their arrival in Lexington. But in 1956, Palmer bought a new house in a subdivision developed by Ovan Haskins. Much like the pharmacy building that Palmer would construct five years later, his new home – in a 26-lot development built for African Americans by an African American – was modern and cutting edge in style.

The Palmer family’s first home in Lexington.

By 1964, most “restaurants, store and movie theaters in Lexington had desegregated.” This greatly impacted the African American business district along Deweese Street, as well as businesses like Palmer’s Pharmacy. Around 1964-1965, Dr. Palmer was approached about opening a drug store in a newly constructed, modern shopping center. Stores all over downtown Lexington were either revamping their storefronts or leaving the city core for new shopping centers, or both.

Ranches and split levels were all the rage in post-war America – and Dr. Palmer’s second home in Lexington was stylish and modern.

The West End Plaza, a commercial shopping center located in the West End Neighborhood of Lexington, on Georgetown Street (US 25, leading to Georgetown), had parking out in front and lots of traffic passed by the plaza. According to Dr. Palmer, the image of the store was modern, and, in a sad testament to the tenor of the times, “from the outside you couldn’t tell it was owned by a black.”

From the front page of the September 4, 1968 edition of the Lexington Leader.

Palmer’s Pharmacy in the West End Plaza opened in 1966, and Palmer operated both his new store and the building on East Fifth and Chestnut Streets that year and the following. In 1968, he closed the pharmacy in the East End to concentrate on business on Georgetown Street, which was booming.

And then the pharmacy was bombed.

I knew that part of the story already, but reading the account from the front page of the Lexington Leader the day after the bombing made me close my eyes and hold my breath for a moment.

“The Palmers were rescued from the debris, and were being led away from the scene, when Dr. Palmer began crying that his baby was still inside. When the rescue party re-entered the already burning building, Ray Asher, 680 Woodward Lane,  discovered the child, covered with blood, buried beneath the rubble. He carried her to safety.”[2]

 

Dr. Palmer, his wife, and the little girl all recovered – at least physically. He didn’t reopen his pharmacy, but Dr. Palmer continued to make connections, joining groups that no other African American had joined, and helping other African Americans find work, continue their education, and stay healthy.  In 1972, Governor Wendell Ford appointed Dr. Palmer to the Board of Trustees at the University of Kentucky – the first time an African American had been represented in that body.

Palmer served on the Board of Trustees until 1979 when then-Governor Julian Carroll replaced Palmer with Terry McBrayer – returning the Board of Trustees to an all-white body. When Dr. Palmer died in 1982, Jack Blanton, Vice-President at the University of Kentucky said, “He was quiet man. He didn’t speak frequently at board meetings, but when he did speak, it was about something important.”[1]

That quiet legacy matters. The Palmer Pharmacy Building, the only remaining building in Lexington built, owned, and operated by an African American pharmacist, entrepreneur, and activist, matters. Let’s honor that legacy with our hearts – both the paper kind on Friday, February 16 at noon – and with our  work to preserve this important building. You can print out your own hearts, and inscribe them and hang them up on Friday – and you can call or email your local councilperson and urge the preservation of the Palmer Pharmacy Building.

 

 

 

[1] May 21, 1982. Lexington Herald-Leader

[2] Chandler Davis. “Explosion and Fire Rocks Five Shops; 8 Persons Injured.” Lexington Leader, September 4, 1968, page 1.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. patricia clark says:

    so hope it is saved. your efforts appreciated

  2. Danny says:

    Great article. Thanks for the time to do the research.

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