CHICAGO — In 1973, Howard Bolling secured a $55,000 loan and took a big chance.
The young pharmacist had worked at Walgreens for years but was ready to go out on his own. A mentor helped him get the loan and find a pharmacy corner shop at 11254 S. Michigan Ave. that the owners wanted to sell.
Friends told him he was crazy for wanting to open a Black-owned business in the then majority-white neighborhood of Roseland. In fact, the owners were looking to leave because the neighborhood was beginning to change.
“You’re Black. You can’t go past 95th Street,” people told Bolling.
Though fearful that he wouldn’t be able to pay back his loan, Bolling took the plunge and opened his own pharmacy.
He became a Roseland mainstay for the next 47 years.
In recent years, the corner store owned by the 81-year-old Bolling has become both a dying breed of locally owned neighborhood pharmacies and a community fixture that provides a crucial need for residents with few pharmacies in walking distance.
But those residents are now struggling to meet that need after Bolling’s store was broken into on May 31 as looting followed peaceful protests that day over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Most of his medications were wiped out, along with much of his other inventory.
The pharmacist is working to rebuild, bolstered by donations from the community.
Meanwhile, residents of Roseland, who say their neighborhood was already subject of years of neglect by the city, must go outside their community to get basic medication as the community rebuilds.
“It was a huge blow,” said Ald Anthony Beale, 9th.
As a teenager growing up in Harlem, New York, Bolling had a bicycle but needed a job. So a local druggist hired him to bike around the neighborhood making deliveries.
Bolling admired the pharmacist’s white jacket that he wore while working. He looked sleek and professional to the young teen.
“Geez, that looks so cool,” Bolling said he told the pharmacist. “How can I do it?”
The pharmacist had attended Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. He got an application for Bolling, who was attending Brooklyn Technical High School, an elite public school in New York. A few weeks later, Bolling learned he was accepted to Howard.
Even now, he can see his mother’s face when she learned he would go to college.
“It was almost like she hit the mega lotto,” Bolling said. “She was so proud.”
He worked to save up enough tuition for the first year, and then later won scholarship money.
Bolling graduated with a degree in pharmacy science, and met a recruiter who offered him a job in Chicago as a pharmacist at Walgreens, a company he had never heard of in a city he had never been to.
But he got on a bus, and 22 hours later, he was in Chicago.
Bolling spent years working at Walgreens stores on the South Side, with an interim period working for the Rush hospital system, before he felt compelled to open his own pharmacy.
“I’ve got to do something for myself,” he recalled thinking.
He sought out a mentor, who supplied drugs to pharmacies. The mentor helped him through the process of obtaining a loan, and found the Roseland location that would eventually become Roseland Pharmacy. At the time it was a corner store called Pullman Pharmacy.
Bolling built up his business over the years and witnessed white flight as Roseland became a majority Black neighborhood.
His shop retains an old-fashioned look, with green shelves and a glass counter under a window with “Prescriptions” in black lettering. The tools he used in his early days as a pharmacist are on display: a mortar, pestle and glass jars that used to hold ointments.
He has stayed on the corner of Michigan Avenue and 112th Street, serving his regular customers, even as corporate businesses around him came and went.
‘They have to go way outside community to get prescription drugs’
Now in his 80s, Bolling had been thinking about giving the business three more years before retiring, until the looting last month threw his plans into disarray.
On May 31, he got an alert from his alarm company that the store was broken into. He arrived and saw three or four people running away from the store. A window was smashed, and nearly all of his prescription drugs were gone. Much of his over-the-counter merchandise was also stolen, leaving his store’s green shelves empty even a week after the looting.
Bolling estimates it will cost him about $20,000 to $25,000 to get up and running, and he said his insurance policy does not cover much of it.
His computer was gone, paralyzing his ability to recover his business until he could replace it.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said of seeing his store turned upside down.
Roseland Pharmacy was one of many neighborhood stores that were looted that night, including the two nearest Walgreens stores, at 115th and Halsted streets and 103rd Street and Michigan Avenue.
After the looting, Jada Campbell, a 22-year-old University of Illinois graduate who grew up in Roseland, was calling pharmacy after pharmacy, trying to find a place that could fill prescriptions for her grandparents, but could not find a store nearby that wasn’t affected by the looting.
She spoke to Bolling, who told her he was wiped out. She finally found a pharmacy about 30 minutes away that could provide the medications she needed.
“We ended up having to go outside the community,” she said.
The ordeal sparked an idea for Campbell. She wanted to help a Black-owned business that was harmed during the looting, so she started a GoFundMe fundraiser for Bolling that has raised more than $18,000 so far.
Bolling has started slowly rebuilding his inventory and has been able to fill a small amount of prescriptions. But he has not fully reopened.
The two nearest Walgreens stores have also not opened after the looting, leaving residents, some without vehicles, to struggle to acquire much-needed medication. A Walgreens spokeswoman said the store at 833 W. 115th St. is expected to reopen early this week. The store at 10300 S. Michigan is expected to reopen its drive-thru pharmacy this week.
“We’re talking about people who rely on prescription drugs to live,” said Beale, the area’s alderman. They have to go way outside the community to get prescription drugs.”
Beale said the community has started to rebuild after the looting, but many were unsure what would be covered by insurance, and have few resources to rely on. Some, like Bolling, have relied on sites like GoFundMe, he said.
The area was already strapped for resources, residents say.
As one of just a few independent, full-service pharmacies left in the area, Bolling’s pharmacy has been relied on heavily by residents after a Walgreens store at 111th and Michigan closed in 2015, community members say. The other two nearest Walgreens stores are more than a mile away.
“The area is definitely a desert for a number of different vital needs that our neighbors have,” said Marsha Eaglin, an advisory member of the Far South Chicago Coalition. “We were already practically an empty shell in Roseland when it comes to resources.”
She condemns the looting, but when she sees the disparities Roseland faces compared with the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, she understands the pain people are feeling right now.
“I personally believe that looting is selfish, but I understand why they made the moves they made,” she said. “I understand when you don’t feel your voices are heard.”
But Eaglin and Bolling feel hope for Roseland’s future. Eaglin’s group recently secured grant money to begin projects to address inequities and bring in economic investment.
With the money from the GoFundMe effort, Bolling plans to reopen and do some much-needed renovations on his store.
“What’s the future for Roseland?” Bolling said. “It only has one place to go but up.”
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