Local African-American pharmacist became unlikely civil rights leader

Posted Friday, Mar. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Sanders Marshall Jr., one of the first African-American pharmacists in Fort Worth to work alongside white pharmacists, found early on that his talents would never change the color of his skin.

The 80-year-old man remembers feeling triumphant when he was hired by a downtown drugstore as a pharmacist in the early 1960s -- a place where he once was a porter -- only to have to work in the back of the store for a while so that white patrons wouldn't know a black man had filled their prescription.

The woman who owned Ward-Cutrate Drugs in downtown Fort Worth also didn't know if her other employees would agree to work with him.

"I got several nasty phone calls. No doubt, there were some [patrons] who didn't make comments at all but they just didn't come back," he said.

There was one Granbury woman who asked Marshall: "When are we going to hire white pharmacists?"

"Well, I don't know," Marshall remembers telling her. "I am not in the hiring business."

Eventually, Marshall won the Granbury woman over.

He went on to integrate a host of drug stores in the area, propelling him to the front of race relations in Fort Worth's pharmacies.

"He was a trailblazer with pharmacists," said Fort Worth School Board member T.A. Sims, who went to Texas Southern University in Houston with Marshall. "[Marshall] was an exceptional pharmacist. He was raised here in Fort Worth. He was a native son."

Marshall credits a boyhood encounter with a pharmacist for igniting his passion to help.

As a 10-year-old boy, he sat and watched his father struggle to breathe. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to heal his namesake.

He had just returned from the drugstore on the north side of the city, where a pharmacist said his prescription would have Marshall's father, who was dying of cancer, breathing better soon.

Fifteen minutes passed.

"Then Daddy was breathing really well. I thought this guy had just used some magic. My dad was breathing," Marshall said, his eyes alight as if he were still the 10-year-old boy he was when a pharmacist eased his father's pain.

"I said to myself a little prayer. I said 'Lord, if you will let me grow up to become a pharmacist, I will spend the rest of my days healing people.' That's an elementary way to think about it, but it is how I felt," Marshall said

Years went by. Marshall graduated from high school and went into the United States Air Force, serving four years before returning to Fort Worth, upset that he hadn't attained the rank he'd hoped for. He said facing life was rougher than he thought

He got a job at Ward-Cutrate Drugs as a porter, replacing his friend who was heading off to college.

"One day, as I was coming up the stairs with a load of goods to stock the shelves, something came over me. It was a reminder of the prayer I had prayed as a little boy. I told myself 'I am here for a reason,' " he said.

By the end of the year Marshall's bags were packed for Texas Southern, at that time the only pharmacy program that allowed blacks to enroll.

"[Being a pharmacist] was something I was sincere about, but as I grew up I found out what the world was like," he said.

Sims said that Marshall was a "hardworking student."

"You went to pharmacy school and you knew you had a lot to do," said Sims. "It was one of those courses that you had not only required courses but you had to deeply involve yourself."

After graduation from college in the early 1960s, Marshall returned to Fort Worth, where Jim Crow laws permitted black business owners to serve only black customers. In 1909, according to Fort Worth historian Richard Selcer, Fort Worth only had two drugstores for the city's nearly 7,000 blacks. Fifty years later, when Marshall came back to his hometown with hopes to fulfill his childhood dream, much remained the same.

He went to work for Flint Drugs, a drugstore on the south side. Staying there for only a few months, Marshall visited the woman who had been his manager at Ward-Cutrate Drugs and asked for a job.

"She wanted to hire me on the spot. But it wasn't until two months later she really hired me. The unique thing about her hiring me and the success is that she set out a policy in her store," Marshall said.

"She didn't know if the help would work with me," he said.

At first, he had minimal contact with the public, often handing prescriptions toward the front of the store from the enclosed pharmacy workspace.

There were never any dramatic moments, and while it took some time for white citizens to accept him, his colleagues became some of his life-long friends.

"They protected me. They took up for me. They shielded me," he said.

"As time went on, we didn't have any problems. Even downtown, a lot of white people supported me. They patted me on the back and said, 'Stay with it man. Glad to see you.'"

Years later, Ward-Cutrate was bought by the Eckerd Corporation, and the company asked Marshall to work in its stores across Tarrant County as each store's first black pharmacist. From Haltom City to Arlington Heights, Marshall changed locations frequently during his 35 years with the company.

"They used me to integrate the other stores. I was the point person to break the ice," Marshall said.

Entering the profession with a simple desire to heal and help the sick one prescription at a time, Marshall found himself mending the racial rift in America one local prescription at a time.

"My first motivation was I wanted a good job. Pharmacy is a good profession," Marshall said. "I like the idea I was able to bring about some integration."

Marshall retired in 1997. He returned to part-time pharmaceutical work for many years, but is now fully retired.

Looking back at his life, Marshall finds meaning in the obstacles.

"What strikes me is that I prayed for this. It was a prayer that was answered. It seems like I went into the Air Force and I more or less failed. I didn't get to do what I wanted to or attain the rank that I wanted to. I feel like even that failing was God putting that obstacle in my way," he said.

"[My prayer] sticks with me. It bolstered my faith. My whole career as a pharmacist has been beautiful. I feel good that I had the temperament and presence to go into an adverse situation and overcome it."

Nick Dean 817-390-7856

Twitter@bynickdean

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