Activists rallied outside a ramshackle West Baltimore storefront Saturday afternoon, demanding city officials take steps to quickly stabilize the building, which was the site of a historic civil rights protest.
"The roof needs to be put back on," said C.D. Witherspoon, standing in front of the former location of Read's drugstore, where Morgan State University students held a 1955 sit-in that led to the desegregation of the chain. "We think that's the best way to celebrate Black History Month."
About three dozen activists, members of the local chapter of the civil rights organization the National Action Network, and members of the Occupy Baltimore group gathered in front of the empty storefront at Lexington and Howard streets. Passers-by stopped to listen, gazing up at the building's cracked windows and water-damaged ceilings.
Baltimore officials countered that work will soon begin to reinforce the building, which has sat vacant for more than a decade. The historic lunch counter was removed decades ago, and the drugstore was converted into another business and later closed.
The former drugstore site is part of the proposed "Superblock," a development project intended to reinvigorate an area that was once the city's shopping hub. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake struck a deal last summer with Lexington Partners, the site's developers, to preserve two walls of the building, fund urban development programs at Morgan and place a marker honoring the site's civil rights legacy.
A Rawlings-Blake spokesman said officials opened bids last week from contractors vying to repair the building and expect to award a contract shortly.
The construction project follows "a comprehensive analysis by an independent engineering firm regarding the building's condition and stabilization needs," mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in an email.
J.A. Argetakis Contracting Co. submitted a bid for $349,000 for the project, nearly 12 percent less than the city's estimated cost, O'Doherty said. "Contract Administration has been authorized to begin processing the project for award," he said.
But for those gathered outside the building, the city's efforts are too little too late.
Kay Adler, a photographer and retired social worker who identified herself as part of the Occupy movement, recalled being barred from trying on clothes at nearby department stores when she was a little girl because she is African-American.
"I'm here to stand up for those who can't be here," she said.
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Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, local president of the National Action Network, called on the city to make the drugstore site a civil rights museum.
Cheatham pointed out that although there are two city museums devoted to African-American history, none are solely devoted to the struggle for civil rights in Baltimore.
"This is a place I contend should have a civil rights museum," he said.
Witherspoon said he feared rain and snow would destroy the building before the contractors reinforced it.
"I want my child, who is 2 years old, to be able to take his children to see this drugstore and tell them about the history," he said, resting his hand on the boy's head.