Little Known Black History Notes

African American Pharmacists and Sports

Benjamin Franklin Cooper

Benjamin “B. F.” Cooper was a local pharmacist who owned the largest pharmacy business in Buxton, Iowa in the late 1890s. Considered to be one of the wealthiest African Americans in the state of Iowa. He is described in Rachelle Chase, Images of America Lost Buxton, as one of “The Big Shots of Buxton.” His success as a business entrepreneur included the ownership of one of the most well-known and successful semi-professional baseball teams in Iowa, the Buxton Wonders. B. F. Cooper is reported to have managed the team from 1900 to 1914. The team played and toured in Iowa and surrounding states from 1900 to the 1920s. Some of the better known players on the team included catcher George Isaac “Mule” Armstrong and player/manager George Neal. 

Leo Vinton Butts, Ph.G.

Leo V. Butts, the first known African American to graduate from the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy. He was also the first African American to play in major college football game for the University of Wisconsin. He joined the Badger team in 1918 for at least one season and received his Ph.G. degree in 1920. Leo Butts was a U.S. Army veteran and became known for several interests including civil rights activism and African American pharmacy history. He was a registered pharmacist in Wisconsin and Indiana and owned the Owl Drug Store in Gary, Indiana in 1950. Click here for more information on Leo V. Butts.

Lorena Suggs, Ph.G.

Lorena Suggs was the first African American female to graduate from the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy (Ph.G.,1921). In 1921, Lorena participated in the first major women athletic track and field competition conducted by the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) on the campus.  She won first place in close to university record time in the 75 yard dash (9.4 seconds) and in the 100 yard dash (13.2 seconds). She was second in the baseball throw at 166 feet. Her first place wins were significant and inspiring for African Americans for she had beaten Pauline Spencer, one of the top female athletes at the school, in the 75 yard dash by one second. Lorena placed second overall in the WAA track and field events. At the awards ceremony, she was the only female athlete who did not receive an award for her performance. Despite not being recognized for her athleticism, Lorena was one of the first women who provided a path for other African American women to follow in women’s athletics at Iowa. Not only did she make history in pharmacy, she also help to combat the stereotypes about African Americans, both women and men, competing in sports at major universities. She moved to Chicago after graduation where she became a registered pharmacist in the state of Illinois.

J. B. Martin, Ph.G.

John “J.B.” Martin, a 1910 graduate of the Meharry Pharmaceutical College, who moved to Memphis, Tennessee  after graduation and opened his own drugstore. His business was so successful that it was expanded into a chain of drugstores throughout the South. He was not only the owner of the popular South Memphis Drug Stores but owned two professional baseball teams. J. B. Martin, along with his brothers, William Martin (physician), A.T. Martin, and B.B. Martin (dentist), owned the Memphis Red Sox (1923-1950) and the stadium where the team played. After the Martins acquired the team, they renovated and changed the name of the stadium to Martin Stadium and used it for not only baseball, but for football games, track and field, and other organized events. This was a major business accomplishment by the Martins and even more so for black entrepreneurs at the time. The Martins had complete control over the revenue from the baseball team, but also from the stadium concessions and a nearby hotel as well. J.B. Martin later moved to Chicago where he served as the President of the Negro American Baseball League and acquired ownership of his second professional baseball team, the Chicago American Giants (1937-1950). After a few years, he sold the team to Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, and began to pursue a career in politics.

William Langston Manggrum, Ph.G.

William Langston Manggrum, a 1921 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh College of Pharmacy, opened Manggrum Drug Store in the late 1920s, the first black-owned drugstore to be opened in Walnut Hill, Cincinnati, Ohio. The pharmacy was one of the most popular gathering spots in the community. “Doc” Manggrum, as he was referred by customers, also sponsored the all-black, semi-professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Manggrums. He made a tremendous personal sacrifice for the community of Cincinnati by supporting the baseball team. Manggrum Drug Store was a small business operation that employed very few employees. William Manggrum made sure that the team had matching uniforms and basic equipment to play the game. At a time when segregation of black professional and semi-professional baseball teams was at its peak, most cities would not support the teams. The local fields and stadiums in their communities where games were played were often too small, without proper maintenance, and some had no lights for night games. It was not uncommon for the large local media and white newspapers to not cover the games, despite the teams having some of the best players in country. The Cincinnati Manggrums played in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The team was managed by Tom “Lefty” McCracken, who also played and was one of the team’s leading hitters. He had also played in the Negro American League. The team also featured a talented second baseman named Tex Conley as well as slugging outfielder Glen Smith. Pitching aces included “Speedball” Davis and Dave McClean. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player to sign with a major league professional baseball team. As more Major League teams signed more players of color, the quality of the Negro Leagues quickly declined and eventually disappeared.

Wesley Rollo Wilson, Ph.G.

Wesley Rollo Wilson, a 1914 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, was a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper from the 1920s until his death in 1956. He served as the first Secretary of the Negro American Baseball League in 1928 and as the Deputy Director of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission in 1933. At the same time, he was also an active practicing pharmacist in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As a sportswriter, he covered many major professional and HBCU college football games, the Negro Baseball League, track and field events, and championship boxing. He was recognized for his editorials on racial injustices in sports and was a sought after speaker at many social events in the Philadelphia community.   

Zirl Augustus Palmer

 Zirl A. Palmer was a very successful business leader in Lexington, Kentucky and was one of the first African American in the country to own a Rexall Drug Store. A graduate of Xavier University College of Pharmacy, he was a well known civil rights leader during the the 1960s and the first African American to be appointed to the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees. In 1958, Zirl Palmer was one of the top seeded men’s singles tennis players in the state of Kentucky. He was ranked number four behind John McGill, Charles Richardson, and Arthur Johnson all from Louisville. In May 1958, he had advanced to play Henry Baughman in the Kentucky State Closed Tennis Championships. Prior to the match, he was notified that he would not be permitted to participate in the competition by the Idle Hour Golf Club that owned the tennis courts because African Americans were barred from participating in activities on their properties. The Kentucky State Tennis Association upheld the decision of the Idle Hour Golf Club and declared the match a lost by Palmer by default. Palmer did not protest the decision and therefore could not advance in the competition. Click here for more on Zirl Palmer