An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 2/11/2023
Meet Anna Louise James, born in 1886 Connecticut. Her father, Willis Samuel James, was himself a formerly enslaved person, having escaped from Virginia by way of the Underground Railroad, marrying Anna Houston in 1874. Daughter Anna was the eighth of what would ultimately be eleven children --one of the only Black families living in Old Saybrook. In the face of fierce racist and sexist opposition, Anna enrolled in the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy in 1905 --the only woman in her class. She graduated in 1908 and became a licensed pharmacist the following year --the very first African American woman to do so. Despite this accomplishment, she still bumped up against professional obstacles; one significant such setback was the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Association rejecting her membership application and suggesting that she instead "join the Womens' Auxiliary."
Initially co-managing a drugstore in Hartford, she later worked with her brother-in-law, Peter Lane, who had opened Lane Pharmacy in her hometown of Old Saybrook --the two of them being the only Black pharmacists in the entire state of Connecticut. After World War I, Lane left the business and Anna became its sole proprietor. With the passage of the 19th Amendment, Anna became one of the first women in the state of Connecticut to register to vote, inspiring other young women to do likewise.
In 1922 "Miss James" (as she was known to local residents) renamed her business James Pharmacy, modernizing it and incorporating a two-story wing and a carved mortar-and-pestle motif on the front of the building. In 1925 she installed display cases and glass-door cabinets which remain to this day. The pharmacy itself is referenced in her niece Ann Petry's debut novel The Street (1946). Over the years Anna James's regular summertime customers would include such celebrities as Katherine Hepburn and Howard Hughes.
On the occasion of her 80th birthday in 1966, the entire town of Old Saybrook turned out to celebrate and honor their favorite pharmacist. In 1974 the Veterans of Foreign Wars honored her as Citizen of the Year. James Pharmacy closed in 1967, but Anna continued to live upstairs, until her death in 1977. In 1984 new owners reopened the building as a retro-style ice cream shop, even retaining the original soda fountain that dated all the way back to Peter Lane's time. Today the building has been renovated as a Bed & Breakfast and Gelateria, conspicuously mimicking its 1920's heyday and featuring a comprehensive exhibit about the life and career of Anna James.
James Pharmacy was added to the Register of Historic Places in 1994.
Learn more about the James Pharmacy at: https://www.jamespharmacybnb.com/our-history
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