Dr. Zirl Augustus Palmer was born in 1920 in Bluefield, Virginia. He attained a BS in chemistry from Bluefield College and sought to further his studies in the field of pharmacy in neighboring West Virginia. But at the time, African Americans were prohibited from attending West Virginia’s public professional schools. Undeterred, Palmer traveled to New Orleans to study pharmacy, and he managed to have the state of West Virginia pay for his train fare and part of his tuition. He earned an MS from Xavier University of Louisiana College of Pharmacy. Palmer, himself a veteran of the Second World War, married fellow veteran Marian Elspy Sidney of Cartersville, Georgia. She was a graduate of Central State College and enlisted on August 4, 1943 in the Women’s Army Corps, ultimately being honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant. The couple moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 1952.
In 1959, Palmer purchased the property on the southeast corner of 5th Street and Chestnut Street, where he established “Palmer’s Pharmacy, Luncheonette, and Doctor’s Office” in 1961.
Dr. Palmer’s drugstore was the only black-owned drugstore in town; as a franchise of Rexall, it was the company’s first drugstore in the country to be owned by an African American. Palmer’s business fostered relationships in the community and was a boon to the neighborhood. It offered a convenient location for people to obtain their medications, and its soda fountain and lunch counter served a social function as a gathering place. The building also housed doctors’ offices on the second floor, providing another essential service.
In addition to bringing his entrepreneurship and professional expertise to the East End, Palmer was actively engaged in the civic affairs of Lexington. He served the local branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Chamber of Commerce, and Planned Parenthood. He was a member of Main Street Baptist Church, where he conducted a health care program, the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, and the Civic Center Board. He was the first African American member of the Optimist Club and Big Brothers. He chaired the local United Negro College Fund, and helped organize Community Action Lexington-Fayette County and the Hunter Foundation for Health Care. Dr. Palmer was the first African American to be appointed to the University of Kentucky’s Board of Trustees, on which he served from 1972-1979.
Tragedy struck on September 4, 1968, however, as the blast from a bomb destroyed Palmer’s newest store, along with many others in the plaza. It sent his wife Marian, daughter, and him to the hospital after being trapped in the rubble for hours. Dr. Palmer believed that the attack stemmed from his involvement in the local Civil Rights movement.
His belief would prove correct, as in 1970, an all-white jury deliberated just ninety minutes before finding former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon Phillip J. Campbell guilty of the crime. Following this frightful and trying time, Dr. Palmer sold his businesses and retired to protect the well-being of his family. With the destruction of Dr. Palmer’s West End Plaza business in 1968, the Palmer Pharmacy Building at 400 East 5th Street is the last building remaining that he built, owned, and managed. What is more, the building is the last of the structures in Lexington built, owned, and operated by an African American pharmacist during the era of segregation.
Watch the Blue Grass Trust deTour, included in this story, for a tour of Palmer Pharmacy in Dr. Palmer's own words, thanks to the oral history recorded by Lexington's Urban League and available through the Louie B Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky.