Sidney Barthwell Sr. ’29: A legend of Black pharmacy entrepreneurship

Sidney Barthwell Sr.
Sidney Barthwell Sr.

A Cass Tech High School alumnus and longtime Boston-Edison resident, Sidney Barthwell Sr. earned his B.S. in Pharmacy from Wayne State University in 1929. Upon graduation, then-dean Roland P. Lakey loaned him $25 to pay for his degree.

The ambitious Barthwell opened his first pharmacy at the height of the Great Depression in 1933 and provided much-needed work for many Black Detroit residents ­­– a long-term focus of his socially conscious career. He grew his footprint in the city, establishing 10 pharmacies with soda fountains, three ice-cream parlors and two patent medicine stores. 

Before long, Barthwell Drugs became the largest Black-owned chain of drugstores in the United States.

Barthwell Drugs employee banquet, 1941 Barthwell Drugs pharmacy counter

View Barthwell Drugs 10th anniversary bulletin (1933-43)

Despite his financial success, Barthwell faced discrimination in lending and other business necessities. In an interview for Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community (Wayne State University Press), he described one such situation in which he needed a loan of $20,000 to construct a building on the corner of Hague and Oakland avenues:

When I went to the bank, it refused to give me a loan unless the creamery which I dealt with would give me a loan subordinate to the bank’s. The creamery agreed to do this. But the bank still wasn’t satisfied. Now they were requiring that I get a term life insurance policy. Incredible although it might seem, I couldn’t find a company to write the policy. Finally Occidental agreed to write the policy. But the catch was that I had to pass an extremely vigorous physical exam to qualify. I had to run up and down five flights of stairs three times and then have my pulse rate checked.

The Oakland Avenue building

Barthwell Drugs ice cream counter

Truman acknoweldges NNBL

Barthwell served as president of Metro Detroit’s Booker T. Washington Business Association and was the first Black member of the Detroit Retail Druggist Association. He was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Negro Business League during its Golden Anniversary Celebration in 1950 – a milestone recognized by President Harry S. Truman – and to public office as a delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1963.

At the convention, Barthwell contributed to the discussion on revising the constitution’s Declaration of Rights surrounding unreasonable search and seizure.

“Coleman Young responded that the issue posed was one of ‘human rights’ as far as blacks in the state were concerned. Sidney Barthwell, another black Detroit delegate, stated that the police had searched him many times and, indeed, had done so that very afternoon as he was walking down the street," wrote Sidney Fine in Expanding the Frontiers of Civil Rights: Michigan, 1948-1968 (Wayne State University Press). "The friends of civil liberties and civil rights did not, however, prevail, the delegates voting 74-62 to retain the proviso in the existing constitution with a minimal change in the language.”

A lifelong member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Barthwell was also a charter member of Wayne State University's Alpha Beta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi. In 1998, he was named by the Detroit Urban League as a Distinguished Warrior alongside Damon Keith.

Ultimately, Barthwell Drugs fell victim to Detroit’s infamous freeway construction through Black Bottom; the last store closed in 1987.

Barthwell Drugs at 8640 Russell St.
Barthwell Drugs at 8640 Russell St. in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood was among the buildings demolished to make way for the I-75 & I-375 freeway system.

When he died in 2005 at age 99, Barthwell was eulogized on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives as “one of the first African American entrepreneurial beacons of Detroit to exemplify the American Dream.”

Barthwell’s success was certainly a bridge for others in Detroit – especially Black pharmacists ­– to achieve their goals. In 1996, the Sidney Barthwell Endowed Pharmacy Scholarship was established at Wayne State to carry on this legacy; Barthwell's daughter Dr. Akosua Barthwell Evans and grandson Walter Evans remain involved with the scholarship. 

An anchor in urban health care 
The Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences is built on more than 100 years of tradition and innovation in the heart of Detroit. We have grown deep roots in our city, harnessing its powerhouse hospital systems and community service organizations as vibrant, real-world training grounds for students, with an ongoing focus on social justice in health care. And our research at all levels – from undergraduates to veteran faculty members – translates into creative solutions for healthier communities.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering approximately 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 25,000 students.

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