Van Avery Drug Store Protest
When the Civil Rights Movement Came to Kalamazoo
By 1963, the post-World War II fervor for civil rights, which had begun several years earlier in southern states like Alabama and Mississippi, had reached northern states like Michigan, where young African American activists began to collectively voice their opposition to both the commonplace indignities they faced, and toward the deeply formed racist policies and institutions that held sway over their lives—from banking to housing, education to healthcare. While many northern communities like Kalamazoo perceived their civic open mindedness as a social good, it was only through a white, paternalistic lens that ignored the socioeconomic inequalities faced by the small but growing black community–most of whom were assigned to racially segregated neighborhoods and low wage service and domestic jobs. Because of wide-spread housing discrimination practices like racial covenants, and fueled by two decades of redlining, most of Kalamazoo’s black population was concentrated on the city’s Northside by 1963.
The Van Avery Drug Store had been a Northside neighborhood mainstay for five decades prior to the summer of 1963. Operated by Donald W. Van Avery at 702 N. Burdick Street, the store had been established in the mostly Dutch neighborhood by Donald’s father, Charles E. Van Avery. In addition to the pharmacy, the store sold a variety of confections, ice cream, cosmetics, stamps, soda pop, newspapers, and tobacco. Van Avery sold the store in 1964 to Gordon H. Lewis, and it closed its doors for the final time in November of 1967. The site later became the first home of the Alma Powell Branch Library in 1971. As of the writing of this article, the building is home to The Ecumenical Senior Center.
A Civil Rights Flashpoint
By 1963, most of the residents living in the neighborhood were African American, and since most of the store’s customers were black, activists argued that it was reasonable and fair to expect that local businesses hire staff that reflected the community in which the store operated. Up until then, there existed a whites-only hiring policy, one which increasingly became the source of friction between black customers and store management. The beginning of June saw the NAACP Youth Council urge black teens to apply for summer work throughout the community. Three teens from the council–David Johnson, Walter Jones II and Lois James, approached the drugstore and asked for applications. The store refused to grant the teens the opportunity to fill out and submit applications. The black students were told that the store was currently not hiring and refused to reconsider their position even after the NAACP encouraged them to do so. With the civil rights movement surging throughout the south in the Spring of 1963, the push toward a more militant stance against injustice was abound in both the national and local air.
“All they wanted was a person working at the soda fountain as a symbol, making maybe $15 dollars a week.”—Duane L. Roberts
The picketing of the store began on the morning of June 17th by members of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and allies from The Second Baptist Church (led by Rev. Bernis Warfield) after conversations with the drug store broke down over the request to hire black residents. Initially, the demands were that the Van Avery’s hire a full-time black store clerk, which was later modified to the immediate hiring of a part-time employee, with the promise to consider hiring additional blacks when vacancies arose. Van Avery balked at the demands, arguing that there were no current employee openings to be filled. Various community members from different positions of influence and power stepped in to help resolve the dispute, including the prominent black physician Dr. C.A. Alexander, The Community Relations Board members and the Kalamazoo County Chamber of Commerce’s F. Joseph Buckley. On July 1st, after several weeks of discussions, the parties failed to reach an agreement with a settlement plan that had centered around a promise from the store to not discriminate in future hiring, plus an offer to help fund a four-year scholarship to Ferris State College for a black graduate selected by the NAACP. The 150 persons attending a mass meeting at the nearby Second Baptist Church rejected the store’s offer stating, “We believe it is more desirable the Negro earn his own way than that he have his way subsidized through life. We feel that the scholarships are readily available for qualified Negro students.”
On July 8th, the two parties came to an agreement that resulted in the suspension of the picketing. However, the protesters urged community members to boycott the store until a black employee was hired. The signed agreement included six points that detailed each of the parties’ responsibilities, including a promise of the protesters to immediately cease picketing and that the Van Avery Drug Store retain for six months, a black person’s employment application on file. Also, the store was to regularly notify the NAACP of employment postings.
Despite the negotiated terms, Van Avery refused to hire an African American employee right away, leading to the continuation of the boycott through the summer and into September, when the store finally hired its first black employee.
“It did bring a togetherness among blacks, and that was another important development. All levels worked together as one, and that’s one of the first times in Kalamazoo that this had occurred—a great thing. There were some negatives too, but I think the positives outweighed the negatives.”—Arthur Washington Jr., Former Kalamazoo City Commissioner
Arthur Washington Jr., who was the first black city commissioner in Kalamazoo, and who was a supporter of the protest, believed that while some argued that the scholarship fund proposal would have been a better, long-term solution to the dispute, later suggested that hiring discrimination became less prevalent throughout the community, citing, “I think other parts of the community did not want the same thing to occur, so hiring tended to be much better as far as our students were concerned. So, there were some benefits.”
“I think it accomplished a bigger purpose: the objective changed, and our underlying objective was equality of opportunity. Also, as I mentioned earlier, there was a power struggle. In other words, people were talking to a black minister, a black minister was talking to a white liberal, a white liberal was talking to the power structure…and I can remember a meeting that we had after the march, and boy, some of those white liberals, especially some of those women were shocked to hear our people saying, “Now we will speak for ourselves. Nobody is going to speak for us.” And to me, that is probably the most significant thing that came out of Van Avery’s, because blacks said, “Hey, now we’re going to take charge of our destiny.”—Duane Roberts (former President of the local chapter of the NAACP, community activist)
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, December 2021. Last updated 20 April 2022.
“Van Avery Drug Shuts Its Doors”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 June 1963
“Possible Van Avery Plan to be Aired at Meeting”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 June 1963
“Drug Store Compromise Fails”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 July 1963
“50 Years Ago, Van Avery Protest Marked Turning Point for Kalamazoo’s Black Community”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 February 2013, page A1, column 1
Social Changes in Western Michigan, 1930 to 1990: The Alexander Oral History Project, V. 2, edited by Henry Vance Davis (H 921 A3754.3)
Local History Room Files
Subject File: Van Avery Drug Store
Subject File: Blacks
Name File: Van Avery, Donald W.
Name File: Roberts, Duane L.