Josh Shaffer

Farewell to Hamlin Drug, 100 years in downtown Raleigh

John Johnson, who has manned the counter at the Hamlin Drug Co. in downtown Raleigh since 1957, is closing the oldest African-American owned business in North Carolina.
John Johnson, who has manned the counter at the Hamlin Drug Co. in downtown Raleigh since 1957, is closing the oldest African-American owned business in North Carolina. 2007 News & Observer file photo

For more than a century, Hamlin Drug store operated on the eastern edge of downtown Raleigh, starting with a horse and buggy driven by its namesake proprietor – a former fishmonger and saloon-keeper recognizable by his waxed mustache.

In J.E. Hamlin’s day, segregated East Hargett qualified as Raleigh’s “black Main Street,” a strip that bustled with barbershops, banks and dances at the Arcade Hotel.

But since 1957, John M. Johnson has manned the counter in his familiar white lab coat, keeping the state’s last independent black pharmacy alive. In the early days, he delivered medicine in a beat-up yellow Renault, usually after hours, and well into the 21st century he continued to stock hard-to-find cure-alls such as Watkins Liniment.

For six decades, Johnson persisted through downtown’s decline, downtown’s rebirth and a demographic change so sweeping that Hamlin Drug now stands across the street from Krav Maga, a martial arts studio. He regrets having to close his doors when so many others are opening, but at age 86 he can leave satisfied and well-appreciated, having whipped an untold number of fevers and cured countless coughs.

“It’s been a good life,” he said.

Hamlin’s departure means the end for a business that as of this week still drove prescriptions to the doors of 90-year-old customers, a drug store that for years allowed government employees earning a monthly salary to pay what they could, when they could.

“We’ve had to eat a lot of those accounts,” Johnson admitted.

It marks the exit of one of Hargett’s last black-owned businesses, an address that has witnessed a stormy century. Johnson can recall when tobacco farmers, most of them sharecroppers, would park and picnic at Moore Square on Saturdays, spending their harvest dollars on Hargett.

He can recall serving free hot chocolate to students from Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College who would meet outside his doors to organize sit-ins at all-white drug stores a few blocks away.

And he hails from a time when his two-story building could be constructed on an empty downtown lot for $100,000. “A new building is brightening part of the rundown business section of town,” raved The News & Observer in 1963, when Johnson and his partner Clarence Coolidge Coleman, both graduates of Howard University, moved into their new location at 126 E. Hargett.

“We paid that off in nine years,” Johnson recalled.

Ten years ago, Mayor Charles Meeker led a group of admirers who recognized Hamlin for its 100 years downtown. Johnson considered closing his doors then, and offers topping $1 million came in for the building. But his daughters wanted to keep it going longer, and Hamlin remained successful as new restaurants and apartments crowded around downtown.

His daughter Kim Scott said she plans to reopen as an online pharmacy at an unspecified date.

Many new customers tell him that the signs in his window, one that welcomes refugees and another that decries Islamophobia, drew them in.

Still, Johnson’s wife needs his help now, and he will turn his attention from Raleigh’s care to hers. He leaves with the applause, never sought, of the city he served even when it did not respect him, even when it could not rise to his level of grace.