Jim Crow at Wurster Brothers Drug Store on Chillicothe Street

The Ohio Conference of the AME Church Denounces Racial Discrimination in Portsmouth, Ohio

In September 1904, Portsmouth, Ohio's Wurster Bros. Drug Store on Chillicothe Street made headlines in the New York Times when they refused to serve soda water to Bishop W. B. Derrick, a visiting leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was in the city attending a meeting of the Ohio Conference of the AME, which was being hosted by Allen Chapel, the city's oldest Black congregation.

The New York Times reported: "The African Methodist Conference, in session here to-day, was thrown into confusion when it became known that its presiding Bishop, W. B. Derrick of New York City, had been unable to obtain a drink of soda water." As soda fountains grew in popularity in the late nineteenth century, fueled in some degree by the temperance movement and the popularity of caffeinated drinks like Coca Cola, it became common for drug stores with largely white clientele to restrict their drink service to white customers only, thus reflecting and reinforcing the discriminatory practice of racial segregation that spread in the decades after the US Civil War.

The operation of whites-only soda fountains in Portsmouth had become a point of contention prior to the meeting of the Ohio Conference of the AME, six months earlier in April 1904. Frank White, a popular black barber and member of Allen Chapel, had made headlines in the Portsmouth Daily Times, when he publicly complained: "I think I'm as clean and dress as well as any white or colored man, yet (raising his voice) I can't go into certain places in town and get a glass of soda water. I can't sit down at a fountain, while the lowest kind of white man is permitted to."

White's comments were made at a "mass meeting of representative colored citizens," which culminated in the passage of a resolution that lamented the existence of various "hindrances to the full exercise of the rights of colored citizens in several states and ... [that] prejudicial measures and acts continue unnecessarily and brutal and inhuman methods of punishment are perpetrated on colored citizens without just course of law." In short, discriminatory laws, police brutality, and extra legal lynchings were all violating the rights of African Americans. The meeting "resolved that we the representative colored citizens of Portsmouth" call out such "uncivilized and inhumane acts of legislation and unjust discrimination" and "maintain our dignity by cultivating a higher moral standard."

With Frank White and other members of Allen Chapel backing this resolution, it is reasonable to assume that six months later, when Bishop Derrick personally experienced the enforcement of Jim Crow at a Portsmouth soda fountain, the host congregation was well prepared to support the Ohio AME Conference in their official condemnation of racial discrimination in the city.

During a break between conference sessions, Bishop Derrick and the Rev. Dr. C. M. Tanner of Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta, Georgia, went for a walk on Chillicothe Street and were directed to Wurster Brothers by a reporter for the Portsmouth Daily Times. There, according to the Times reporter, the ministers "asked if they handled ginger ale, and ordered a bottle. They were told that they had no ginger ale. One of the men then said that they would take soda water. Upon this they sat down. The young lad who was on duty at the soda counter quietly said that they did not serve colored people at the fountain. The two ministers thereupon arose and after conversing a minute left the place."

Indignant over the experience, Bishop Derrick took to the floor of the conference and complained bitterly, with Dr. Tanner following the remarks with the introduction of a resolution denouncing the "bitter prejudice" of the white-only soda fountain of Wurster Brothers.

According to the Daily Times, Bishop Derrick spoke as follows:

"I was considerably taken aback by something that happened to me this evening. Born in a foreign land I have traveled all over Europe and met the greatest and best of the Old World's people and was always treated with the greatest civility, my race cutting no figure. It remained to Portsmouth to deny me the privilege of drinking a glass of soda water on account of my color. I was surprised to learn so unpleasantly that the narrow spirit of caste could have a lodgment in the great state of Ohio. But then this is Portsmouth. Again I say I am surprised, and again I will remark -- this is Portsmouth."

The Daily Times reported that the Bishop's "remarks made a deep impression upon every one." Dr. Tanner then introduced his resolution, with a preamble that read, in part,"Whereas, our eminent presiding officer, Rt. Rev. William Benjamin Derrick, Doctor of Divinity and Doctor of Laws, was refused a most ordinary and commonplace accommodation that might be given to the poorest self-respecting and ordinary citizen of Portsmouth, that is the blank refusal of Wurster Bros. to furnish him a drink of soda water; .... whereas, we recognize that the refusal was based as he was informed purely upon color and not upon condition, and whereas, we recall that in all the battles of this country, from Bunker Hill to San Juan Heights, the Negro has fought, bled and died in the defense of the country and the flag, our distinguished prelate [Bishop Derrick] himself, giving three years of his life to the cause in the war of the rebellion. Therefore, be it resolved, ... that we resent the un-called-for, un-christian and inhuman treatment, and hurl back its odium into the faces of our traducers. .... We pray that God will hasten the time when our people, as other races, may be judged upon their individual merits, and the distinctions of condition and work may be recognized."

The conference resolution may have secured the attention of New York City and Portsmouth newspapers, but it did not change the policy of Wurster Bros., or other local soda fountain operators. Like other forms of segregation in the city, the historical record suggests that Jim Crow at the soda fountains of Portsmouth continued until the 1940s, or perhaps, later.

At the time of Bishop Derrick's visit to Portsmouth in 1904, the Daily Times explained, "it has been an established rule for years at the Wurster pharmacy that no one but white customers shall be served at the fountain. .... Mr. John Wurster said that there was a sentiment among their white customers against colored citizens drinking at the fountain. They derived their main patronage from white people and expects to cater to their wishes and desire."

The anti-Jim Crow resolutions adopted in April and September of 1904 reminds us that black residents of Portsmouth resisted the development and perpetuation of racial discrimination in the city long before the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Ohio Conference's denunciation of Wursters Drug Store clearly reflected this on-going local resistance, while also encouraging residents to support future efforts at ending Jim Crow in the city.


"Col. F. White Gets Sore. Can't Go Into Certain Stores in Town after Soda Water While Lowest Kind of White Man Can Do So," Portsmouth Daily Times (19 April 1904): 3.

"About Col. White's Kick," Portsmouth Times (23 April 1904): 3.

"Turned Down: Bishop Derrick Refused Glass of Soda Water at Wurster Bros. Fountain," Portsmouth Daily Times (29 September 1904): 1.

"Lauds the President as the Greatest Friend of the Negro Race," Portsmouth Times (30 September 1904).: 1.

"Negro Methodists Indignant. Drug Store Refused to Sell Soda Water to Bishop Derrick," New York Times (30 September 1904): 5.