He was a successful black pharmacist when a Klansman’s bomb put his drugstore out of business in 1968 and sent him and his family to the hospital.
But Zirl A. Palmer would go on to play a crucial role in desegregation. He was the first black member of many Lexington groups, including the University of Kentucky’s Board of Trustees.
Palmer’s legacy was slipping from memory until recently, when preservationists began a campaign to save his most significant store, a modern-style building at the corner of East Fifth and Chestnut streets.
The building’s last occupant was the Catholic Action Center, which moved to a new facility on Industry Road last year. The city took over the property and asked for proposals to renovate it. When it got none, it decided to demolish the building so it wouldn’t become a hazard.
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That is when East End residents, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and others stepped up to try to figure out an economical way to renovate the building, perhaps as space for small neighborhood businesses. Demolition plans have been put on hold while those efforts play out.
Architectural historian Janie-Rice Brother has volunteered to write a National Register of Historic Places nomination, which could provide tax credits to help pay renovation costs. She plans to focus on the building’s association with Palmer and the significant role he played in Lexington.
“Dr. Palmer was assertive without being aggressive,” said Yvonne Giles, an authority of Lexington’s black history. “He was very effective, because he knew what he needed to do to get things done.”
Palmer was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1920, and studied pharmacy in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. He came to Lexington in 1951 to open a drugstore. The first Palmer’s Pharmacy was in an old building at Fifth and Race streets.
Drugstore soda fountains were popular then, but most were not open to blacks. So he created one, once he found a local ice cream company willing to sell to him. When he started setting ice cream sales records, all of the companies wanted his business, Palmer recalled in a 1978 oral history interview archived by UK online.
Palmer’s success led him to move down Fifth Street to the corner of Chestnut and build a clinic to house his drugstore and the offices of two black doctors and a black lawyer. It was like nothing else in the neighborhood, then or now: a mid-century modern building with big, metal-frame windows and yellow glazed brick.
“A lot of optimism must have gone into creating that building,” Brother said. “It was fresh and modern, like what white people were building in the suburbs.”
Palmer’s reputation led a developer to lure him to a new shopping center at 633 Georgetown Street in 1966. “In one year out there, I was doing three-times as much business,” Palmer recalled, so he closed the East End store to focus his energies.
Palmer’s business success came to an abrupt halt on Sept. 4, 1968, when a bomb exploded in his store, destroying it and damaging several nearby shops. Palmer, his wife, Marian, and their 4-year-old daughter, Andrea, were hospitalized for several days. Five others also were injured in the blast.
Klansman Phillip J. Campbell of New Albany, Ind., was convicted of the bombing and sentenced to 21 years in prison. Palmer said he never found out why he was targeted, except that he was black and successful.
Palmer’s physical injuries soon healed, but he decided to work as a pharmacist for Walgreen’s at Turfland Mall rather than reopen his store.
“I was scared,” he told the interviewer in 1978. “I didn’t feel, you know, that it was worth taking a chance on my life and my family and other people. It was the first time I’d ever experienced being afraid.”
Palmer’s success and easy-going nature attracted him to white leaders interested in integration. He joined what is now Commerce Lexington and became the first black member of many civic groups, including the Optimist Club and Big Brothers. He was named to the Civic Center board, chaired the United Negro College Fund and helped organize Community Action.
He also was active in Planned Parenthood, taught health classes at his church, Main Street Baptist, and helped black physician Dr. Bush Hunter create the Hunter Foundation, an early health-maintenance organization.
When Gov. Wendell Ford wanted to integrate the UK Board of Trustees in 1972, he chose Palmer. Gov. Julian Carroll’s decision to not reappoint him in 1979 caused quite a stir. Palmer died in 1982 at age 62.
Preservationists hope the building can be saved its historical significance, and because it could be a neighborhood asset once again.
“It’s not whether you like the building,” Brother said. “It’s whether you respect what happened for that building to be constructed. Dr. Palmer was not organizing sit-ins and marches; he was quietly helping his community get ahead.”