Front view of Barthwell Pharmacy located at 8640 Russell St. in Detroit.

Barthwell Drugs: Black Entrepreneurship on Hastings Street

Image: Barthwell Drugs store. “Inside Michigan,” March 1952, Detroit Free Press, ed. John Gallagher (Detroit, Michigan: N/A, 2013).

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Until the mid-twentieth century, the north-bordering area of Detroit’s east side Black Bottom neighborhood (known as “Paradise Valley”) was home to hundreds of black-owned businesses that occupied Hastings Street and St. Antoine Street, the heart of the entrepreneurial neighborhood. At the time, it was the only place with businesses that would all serve blacks. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was home to most of Detroit’s black-owned businesses. The pharmacy run by Sidney Barthwell was one of many examples of the flourishing businesses at that point including churches, social organizations, barber shops, famous jazz and blues clubs, and grocery stores.

Barthwell Drugs was a well-known pharmacy chain in Detroit. Sidney Barthwell was part of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south to the northeastern cities: born in Cordele, Georgia, he left Georgia when he was 14 and worked with his father in Chicago. He eventually moved to Detroit and attended Cass Technical High School where he studied courses in pharmacological sciences. He then went on to Detroit Technological Institute (now Wayne State University’s College of Pharmacy, and Allied Health Profession; where he studied pharmacy. Previous to the pharmacy becoming Barthwell Drugs it was an underperforming pharmacy which hired Barthwell after he graduated college. As the pharmacy continued to slip into despair, Barthwell bought the place and turned it into Barthwell Drugs. As a result of this business venture, a well-known chain of drug stores were created. Barthwell Drugs were well known throughout the city of Detroit, there were various locations in the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley area. A company like Barthwell represents the strong black business culture that was present around Black Bottom.

Bartwell’s son, Sidney Bartwell, Jr., would later describe Black Bottom and Paradise Valley as “a paradise for black entrepreneurial businesses.” “Funeral homes, doctors — there were a dozen different black-owned hospitals,” Barthwell said. “The Detroit black community in its heyday was absolutely fantastic. It was better than Harlem.” In an interview, Barthwell Sr. stated that, “I think that one of the mistakes that black people made was when they thought they had integration, they gave up their own institutions. I think every ethnic group needs a place where they can get together and discuss things that are peculiar to their problems.”

In addition to more contemporary images of Detroit’s decline in the national media, the Detroit experience should also be remembered for what was lost to urban renewal and expressways in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the imagery of booming businesses and thriving organizations paints only a partial picture of the neighborhood’s environment. The living conditions within the neighborhood were bleak. Projects were being built next door, but within the neighborhood of Paradise Valley, the houses were almost a century old, poorly-maintained, and largely unattended by city services. Federal Housing officials declared that two-thirds of the residents were living in substandard units. The high number of immigrants to the city during WWII exacerbated the existing problem of overcrowding. With overcrowding came sanitation problems, disease, and fire hazards. The racial component of these conditions is clear from the fact that the white neighborhood nearby was rated at only 12% substandard living conditions. This is not dissimilar to the contemporary trends in the nation. in the 1930s, basketball teams were still segregated. By the end of 1957, only fifteen states had no segregation laws in place. Detroit, heavily populated by blacks, was in the majority, still subjected to segregation laws and therefore, suffered the blows of housing segregation.

Pharmacist Sidney Barthwell in his Black Bottom shop in the 1940s.

  • Thomas J. Segrue, The Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, 1 (Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 1996), 36.
  • Oral histories with Sidney Barthwell, Jr. and Sidney Barthwell, Sr., in Elaine Latzman Moon, Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967 (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 84-88.

Click here to see all narratives about Black Bottom

Click here to see resources for further reading on Black Bottom

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