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by Fern Shen and Mark Reutter4:48 pmApr 20, 20240

Short in stature but graced with a towering presence, Helena Hicks dies at 88

An appreciation of a West Baltimore born-and-bred activist who helped change the course of American civil rights history.

Above: Helena Hicks confronts ministers Todd Yeary, Al Hathaway and Arnold Howard in 2011, urging them to support the full preservation of the Read’s Drug Store building. (Mark Reutter)

When we heard the sad news that Dr. Helena Hicks died on Thursday, we scrambled to find a photo that would do justice to the 88-year-old’s feisty, fearless spirit.

It didn’t take long.

There she is (see above) in 2011, a white-haired, 4-foot-11 terrier of a woman with her hands on her hips, looking up at a group of men – powerful city ministers in this case – giving them a piece of her mind.

The men look vaguely annoyed, but they’re taking it. When a civil rights icon tells you what’s what, you listen.

They were standing on Howard Street, near the Read’s Drug Store where Hicks and fellow Morgan State University students, as well as members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), had made history in 1955 by desegregating the prominent whites-only establishment.

Hicks had helped kick off a wave of desegregation protests in the city when she led a group of six classmates into the Read’s at the Northwood Shopping Plaza near campus on a blustery January day.

“It was cold, and I wanted something hot to drink – we all did. So I said, ‘let’s go in Read’s,’” she recalled in one of many interviews about that day.

Warned by her friends “they aren’t going to serve you,” she replied, “Let’s just find out” and headed in.

Her friends were right. They were never served, she said, but instead were rudely ejected after the management got over “the shock of their life.”

The students agreed to leave peacefully (“I wasn’t going to let anyone wind up in the Pine Street jail”). But the action that day and their subsequent protests at the big downtown Read’s at the corner of Howard and Lexington streets had a powerful effect.

A Baltimore First

“Now Serve All” was the headline that ran in The Afro-American newspaper a few days later, announcing that Read’s had agreed to desegregate all 37 of its stores in Baltimore, citing “a sit-down strike” at its “largest store in the heart of the city.”

Other successful protests opened up restaurants, theaters and other establishments that had been closed for decades to Blacks.

The Baltimore sit-ins were overshadowed after striking images from the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, N.C. Woolworth’s circulated around the world, galvanizing the sit-in movement.

But, as Hicks liked to point out, Baltimore had them beat by five years.

The young Helena Hicks and a display of clippings about the civil rights sit-down protests she participated in at Read's and elsewhere in Baltimore. (Morgan State University, Lynne Wilson)

The young Helena Hicks and a display of clippings about the sit-down protests she participated in at Read’s and elsewhere in Baltimore. (Morgan State University, Lynne Wilson)

Care for Community and Babies

In the wake of Hicks’ death in hospice on Thursday after a period of declining health, much should be written about the retired city and state employee.

Daughter Lynne Wilson recalled her mother’s determination to make ends meet and advance her career, running a daycare business in Westport and attending classes in the evening, all the while raising two children.

Wilson said her mother earned a master’s degree from Howard University and a PhD in public administration from the University of Maryland.

“She loved the community, and she cared about Black history and civil rights history,” Wilson said, adding with a chuckle “and she loved babies. Oh, she’d stop everything for a child or a little baby.”

After a May 6 viewing from 3 – 7 p.m. at the Joseph H. Brown Jr. Funeral Home at 2140 North Fulton Avenue, there will be, on May 7 at the same location, a 10 a.m. wake and 10:30 a.m. funeral, Wilson said.

At the service, the protest actions Hicks undertook as a college senior will rightly be highlighted.

But friends and city leaders will surely also recall the other causes Hicks embraced, with characteristic gusto, for years afterwards.

Dr. Helena Hicks on a Feb. 12, 2011 West Side outside the Read's Drugstore during a walking tour with City Neighbors Charter School students. (Baltimore Heritage)

Helena Hicks outside the former Read’s Drug Store in February 2011 during a Westside walking tour with City Neighbors Charter School students. (Baltimore Heritage)

“No. 1 troublemaker”

“There are so many stories about Helena,” said former Baltimore NAACP president Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham.

“She was our No. 1 civil rights troublemaker, and I loved her dearly for it.”

Cheatham remembered the time in 2015 when Hicks joined him in Upton for a protest against Bethel AME Church after the politically powerful congregation, which owned the local civil rights landmark Freedom House, razed it.

A reporter described Hicks that day as pacing angrily beside the pile of bricks that had once been a rowhouse where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Clarence Mitchell Jr. attended meetings.

Hicks directed her wrath at Bethel’s then-pastor, Frank Reid.

The pastor’s late mother and civil rights activist, Adrenis Carter Reid, would have been very disappointed to see what he’d done to the building, Hicks declared, noting Reid’s failure to come out of the church and face the protesters.

“Why isn’t he out here?” Hicks griped to a reporter, and later told the City Council:

“We need a way to make sure this does not happen again. It could happen in any part of the city. We need some public policy.”

Read's Drug Store, along bustling Lexington Street, in the 1960s.

The scene outside Read’s Drug Store in the 1960s along then-bustling Lexington Street. (Baltimore Museum of Industry)

Whether it was basement sewage overflows bedeviling Black homeowners in northwest Baltimore or the school system shuttering her beloved Grove Park Elementary School, every fight seemed to bring out Hicks’ college-senior passion.

Not surprisingly, plans during the Stephanie Rawlings-Blake era to demolish the historic Read’s Drugstore for a redevelopment plan made Hicks particularly livid.

She joined preservationists, schoolchildren and other protesters outside the building to decry the initiative.

The “Superblock” plan was for New York developers to replace the Read’s building and other structures with national retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond and Forever 21.

The plan eventually fizzled, but at one point there was a proposal to mollify Hicks and other critics with a compromise, preserving the building’s facade or perhaps just memorializing it with a plaque.

The ministers in the top photo stood with City Hall on May 10, 2011 to support the compromise.

Whereupon, reported The Brew, Hicks “took ministers Yeary, Hathaway and Howard aside and gave then a tongue lashing, like a mother scolding errant children, for not trying to preserve the Read’s building as a monument to the American civil rights movement.”

Miss Helena over the Years

Helena Hicks in 2011 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, discussing the preservation of Ba;timore's civil rights history with Morgaqn State University Professor Gabriel Tenabe. (Brew file photo)

Helena Hicks in 2011 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, discussing how to preserve Baltimore’s civil rights history with Morgan State University Professor Gabriel Tenabe. (Brew file photo)

In 2015, Helena Hicks points to broken playground equipment at Gilmor Elementary School and BELOW hugs Gabriel Dyer near where she grew up in West Baltimore (Fern Shen)

Helena Hicks in 2015, pointing to broken playground equipment at Gilmor Elementary School in West Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

Helena Hicks hugs Gabriel Dyer at an abandoned, trash-strewn storefront near her childhood home on Presstman Street. ( Fern Shen)

Helena Hicks hugs Gabrielle Dyer at an abandoned, trash-strewn storefront near her childhood home on Presstman Street. ( Fern Shen)

Board of Estimates this morning. (Charm TV)

Helena Hicks in 2017, addressing the Board of Estimates about the basement sewage overflows that were plaguing her beloved Grove Park neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. (Charm TV)

Marvin L.

Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham and Helena Hicks hold forth in her Grove Park neighborhood. (Lynne Wilson)

Helena Hicks, one of the original Read's sit-in participants, and her son Wayne Hicks, outside the Reads earlier this year. (Photo by Jessica Cottrell)

Helena Hicks with her son, Wayne Hicks, outside the Read’s building. (Jessica Cottrell)

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