First female black pharmacist no longer forgotten

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 8, 2009 

Lexington real estate agent Jim McKeighen bought the structure at 170 Old Georgetown Street for a song six years ago because the neighborhood had experienced a spate of violent crimes. Other interested home buyers were skittish.

A couple of years later, when he was renovating the place, converting it back to a single-family house from the four apartments it contained when he bought it, McKeighen discovered that he owned a significant piece of Lexington's black history: His home was once owned by Harriett B. Marble, Lexington's first black female pharmacist.

An electrician who was checking the building's old wiring discovered what appeared to be a hot wire, McKeighen said. When he went to the attic to find the source, the electrician discovered several pieces of memorabilia.

"When he dug out all this stuff, he found a letter from Madame C.J. Walker ... addressed to Harriett Marble," McKeighen said. "That got me started."

Walker was the first black female millionaire in America, securing her wealth through the manufacture of hair products. Her palatial home on the Hudson River north of New York City was designed in 1919 by architect Vertner Woodson Tandy, a Lexington native.

Marble also owned a building at 118 North Broadway, which she renovated into a drugstore, physician offices and an apartment in 1930. A historical marker indicates the significance of the building on North Broadway, but not that it was owned by a single black woman.

According to a 1930 item in "Colored Notes," a segment of The Lexington Leader that highlighted news occurring in the black community, Marble had equipped the North Broadway building with "an up-to-date heating plant, baths, offices and an apartment."

Apparently Marble, who had a doctorate in pharmacy from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, lived on the third floor of that building for several years.

McKeighen and Yvonne Giles, a local historian, learned that Marble also was a partner in a company that sponsored concerts by Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Band and Duke Ellington. Those were big names for a small venue like Lexington.

Harriett B. Marble was born in Yazoo City, Miss., in May 1885, according to Who's Who of the Colored Race, published in 1915. She graduated from high school in 1903, finished pharmacy school in 1906 and was licensed in several states. Who's Who also stated that Marble owned her own business in Yazoo City in 1915 and was secretary of the National Medical Association.

According to the Lexington Leader, Marble moved here in 1921 and became one of the "most successful business women in Kentucky."

Records show that the house at 170 Old Georgetown was bought by Lillie Marble Ray, Marble's widowed sister, in 1939 for $4,250 cash. Records later show that the house was deeded to Harriett Marble in 1953. "I think she and her sister had plenty of money," McKeighen said.

McKeighen, who specializes in selling downtown properties, said the house on Old Georgetown was built as a market in 1871. It went through several hands before Ray bought it. He said Ray lived upstairs and rented the lower floor as a grocery store.

"It was right on a busy street before Newtown Pike was built," McKeighen said.

He still has a 1939 stove that once belonged to Marble, and he hopes to get it in working order. McKeighen has found tickets for concerts and to a dance for the Bluegrass State Medical Society, prescriptions labeled Marble Pharmacy, and 5-cent tickets for bottle returns, among other items.

The day I was there, the voice of Bessie Smith, a noted singer in Marble's era, could be heard throughout the 5,000-square-foot house.

McKeighen paid $171,500 for it in 2003.

The house has two kitchens and numerous bedrooms, with more coming when renovations are complete.

"This house is so fantastic and I got it so cheap because no one wanted to buy in the neighborhood," McKeighen said.

After her death at age 80 in 1966, Marble's house was sold by Citizens Union National Bank, he said, and in 1980 it was sold again to new owners who renovated it into four apartments.

In her will, dated August 1962, Marble left everything to her sister, so that Ray could have good nursing-home care until her death.

After Ray's death, the remaining money, according to the will, was to be split among several people. The University of Kentucky also was willed money for scholarships for black and white students. There is no evidence that those wishes were fulfilled.

Giles found records that indicate that Lillie Ray might have died in Nevada in 1969.

Marble's headstone, which Giles discovered in Cove Haven Cemetery, next to Lexington Cemetery, shows that she is buried there with her mother and two sisters, including Ray.

Thanks to McKeighen and Giles, another piece of Lexington's past has been uncovered. All we have to do is appreciate it.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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