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Civil rights activist fights to save landmark

By Larry Lazo, CNN
Helena Hicks is trying to save the vacant building where she participated in a 1955 sit-in.
Helena Hicks is trying to save the vacant building where she participated in a 1955 sit-in.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Helena Hicks held an impromptu sit-in in 1955 at a Read's drug store in Baltimore
  • The protest inspired similar sit-ins at other locations of the drug store chain
  • Soon, the chain changed its policy of not serving African-Americans
  • Hicks is now fighting to save the original store from being demolished

Baltimore, Maryland (CNN) -- Helena Hicks remembers it vividly. It was a cold January day back in 1955. The 20-year-old Morgan State College student was at a bus stop with her friends at Lexington and Howard streets on the west side of Baltimore. Hicks said she and her friends were cold, hungry, tired -- fed up.

"I've got to be able to have something else in my life besides the constant obedience to segregation," Hicks remembers saying.

With that mindset, Hicks and her friends went into Read's drug store and took a seat at the lunch counter. The problem: the retail chain had a policy of not serving African-Americans.

So there they were, sitting at the counter asking to be served, only to be told "no." The students sat there for close to 30 minutes before deciding to leave, Hicks said. Police were never called, and there were no violent confrontations -- only plenty of stares and a few choice words thrown at them.

"We were told to get out, and when we realized the constant 'get out, get out, we don't serve Negroes in here,' we left," said Hicks.

But the students made their point, and it had a snowball effect. Soon, similar sit-in protests were held at other Read's stores, and within a month the store chain changed its policy.

"We were just jubilant. ... It was really the beginning of opening up of downtown Baltimore to integration," Hicks said.

More than 55 years after that impromptu sit-in, Hicks and many members of the Baltimore community are trying to save the vacant Read's building where it all started. City officials and a developer have a $150 million model for a mixed-use development they would like to turn into reality.

"The goal is 300 units of residential, 178,000 square feet of retail, commercial space, a 120-room hotel and 725 parking spaces that would support both the residential and the retail," said Kathy Robertson of the Baltimore Development Corporation.

Several people in the community welcome the development but say there should be a way to save what they consider a big part of Baltimore's history. Community meetings are being held, and the city as well as the developer say they are working on a compromise.

"The developers already said they in no way want to disrespect the history in the neighborhood or the event," Robertson said.

Baltimore civil rights landmark
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Meanwhile, Hicks and other community activists are keeping up the pressure. Some schoolteachers are even using this as an opportunity to teach their young students about what happened back in 1955 and how it impacts them today.

Middle school teacher Peter French was just starting to touch on the topic of segregation at school when he heard about the fight to save the old Read's building.

"I said, 'Well, we're learning about people standing up for their rights, so let's go down and do what we can,'" he said.

French and his students made signs and picketed outside of the building earlier this month.

Hicks, now 76 years old, heard about the students' plans and joined them.

"We have to keep this building up because once you lose history, it's gone forever," she said.

For years, Baltimore has affectionately been known as Charm City. If this building is taken down or if an acceptable compromise isn't reached, some people in the community say, Baltimore stands to lose some of that charm -- and a big part of its civil rights history.