Long before a Walgreens or CVS occupied nearly every corner, there was Katz. The chain of “cut-rate” drug stores had its humble beginnings in Kansas City in the early part of the 20th century. Eventually, it expanded to 65 stores in five states, including locations in Oklahoma City. The downtown store was located at 200 W Main, and its lunch counter was a favorite among locals.
“Most drug stores of that era had a lunch counter,” says Larry O’Dell, director of development and special projects at the Oklahoma Historical Society. “It was a long counter where folks could sit and order café food and soft drinks. They were less formal than restaurants, and usually quicker.”
The lunch counter was a nice place to stop for an ice cold Coca-Cola or a hamburger and take a bit of a breather – unless you happened to be black. In those days, dining establishments, water fountains and even elevators were still very separate.
But that changed in 1958 when Clara Luper entered Katz and made her stand. Luper was an Oklahoma City school teacher, and eventually became known as the “mother” of the state’s civil rights movement.
“Mrs. Luper took over the NAACP youth council in 1957 and decided to stage her first sit-in at Katz in August of 1958,” O’Dell says. “There were mixed reactions to the sit-in, with many people of the era very belligerent to the demonstrators.”
When Luper and her young entourage sat down at the Katz lunch counter, they were promptly denied service. So they sat, hour after hour, and returned the next day. Eventually, Katz’s management relented, and some white customers offered to buy lunch for the polite young crowd. The sit-in prompted Katz to change its segregation policy – not just in Oklahoma, but in other states, as well.
“That was the precursor to other civil rights demonstrations that occurred in the 1960s,” O’Dell says. “Clara Luper led protests against other segregation policies, including Doe Doe Park in Lawton in 1966, and helped with Oklahoma City’s sanitation strike in 1969.”
The Katz store in Oklahoma City eventually was demolished as part of the Urban Renewal efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, but holds a unique place in the city’s struggle for civil rights.
“Oklahoma City desegregated very quickly,” O’Dell says. “The Katz protests were peaceful, and much less violent than most southern cities. But Katz was really the beginning.”