Though the Baltimore Sun heralded the structure at the southeast corner of Howard and Lexington as an Art Deco design icon from the time of its construction in 1934, this building's role as an early and vital witness to a historic, but long over-looked Civil Rights sit-in makes the Read's Drug Store building truly noteworthy. Five years before the better known Greensboro, South Carolina sit-in protests at Woolworth's, students and citizens made civil rights history on this spot.
William Read started his Read's Drug Store chain at this corner, but the current building, designed by prominent Baltimore architects Smith & May, was built by Arthur Nattans bought the business from Read in 1899. Nattans grew the Read's chain to over forty locations by the early 1930s and planned the downtown location as a flagship store - a modern and well-appointed building, detailed with ornate terra cotta panels depicting sailing ships and chromed railing with swimming dolphins on the interior balcony elements commemorating the 300th anniversary of founding of the Maryland colony.
Like many downtown lunch counters in the early 1950s, the Read's chain maintained a strict policy of racial segregation. Discontent with the widespread policies of segregation and discrimination downtown led the Baltimore chapter of the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE) to start a campaign to end segregation at lunch counters on Lexington Street from Kresge's at Park Avenue to McCrory's right next door to Read's. At the same time, students from Morgan State University began working to desegregate the Read's Drug Store's Northwood Shopping Center location, just outside of Morgan's campus.
On January 20, 1955, CORE and Morgan state joined forces and a group of student activists from Morgan staged simultaneous "sit-in" demonstrations at the Howard & Lexington and Northwood Read's locations. According to an article in the Baltimore Afro American, an unnamed Read's official called Morgan State and pleaded with the school to call the protests off because the stores were losing business. School leaders and protesters held firm and within hours a Read's official announced that Read's Drug Store would end segregated lunch counters across all of their establishments. The front page headline for the Afro American on January 22 read, "Now serve all," with the announcement directly from Read's Drug Stores President Arthur Nattans Sr., "We will serve all customers throughout our entire stores, including the fountains, and this becomes effective immediately." Five years before the iconic Woolworth's sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, Baltimore's Morgan State students and CORE activists led one of the first successful student-led sit-in protests in the nation.