At Turner’s Corner Drug, the coffee was always hot, the Coney dogs were always ready, and the advice was always free.  

From 1960 to 1990, pharmacist Robert Joseph Turner owned and operated the business at Ninth Street and Cleveland in Wichita, next door to the Dunbar Theatre.

It was more than what we today think of as a drug store. He filled and delivered prescriptions, but also served food and fountain-style sodas, mentored young people, and made the store a community hub.

Turner and his wife Ruth and two small daughters had come to Wichita in 1954, a time when the city was booming with aviation production. The city also had a growing, vibrant African-American community.

For a young Black man with a fresh bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences and a growing family, Wichita was a good choice.

Their first nights in town, however, almost made them rethink their decision. The motels claimed to have no vacancies, and the White landlords with quality apartments refused to rent to a Black man, even though he had a degree and money. The Turners ate and slept in their 1949 Hudson for a week or so, but decided to persevere.

Turner hired on at what was then the Salome Pharmacy, 1001 Cleveland St., a yellow stucco drugstore at the center of Wichita’s Black business district. The building had been a gathering place since its construction in 1917. Resident Lillian McLean remembered teenagers taking their dates there in the 1920’s when it was the Nifty Sweet Shop.

After a few years, Turner saved enough money to buy the pharmacy, which he renamed Turner’s Corner Drug.

But, he needed operating capital – however, racist lending policies at banks and savings-and-loans shut out African-American businesses.

A friend lent Turner the money, and the infusion jump-started his vision for the store, which included a jukebox. He was able to repay the loan shortly thereafter.

The Civil Rights Movement came into full swing, and Turner was in his element. By this time, everyone called him Doc Turner.

Growing up in Tallulah, LA, as an only child of professional educators, he was encouraged to chase knowledge and be entrepreneurial. His parents, Robert and Janie, had graduated from the historically Black Natchez College in Mississippi, and strove to be self-reliant, financially independent business people.

He recalled that his parents never worked for anybody. After World War II, his parents owned their own grocery store then expanded into the trucking business, hauling logs and pulpwood. Their success led Turner to buy his own 18-wheeler truck and establish a trucking business himself.

He used his money to pay for his pharmaceutical schooling at the University of Arizona in Tucson, perhaps chosen because the program accepted Black students. He also worked in a local pharmacy and learned the ins and outs of the business.

As young people hung out at Turner’s Corner Drug and talked about their dreams and goals, Turner encouraged and shared his lessons with them.

He contended that entrepreneurship and business management – lessons his parents taught him – were two critical areas of education lacking in the African-American community.

Turner said that African-American youths can easily get jobs at McDonalds and Wendy’s “turning” hamburgers, but are seldom given positions where they can learn how to manage the business. Black youths, he said, never learn about the balance sheet, and understand little about how to manage profits and losses. As a result, Black folk are at a disadvantage if they try to go into business.

“You can do anything you want, if you really want it,” Turner told the kids, just as his parents told him.

Turner was quick to emphasize that education does not open every door, but prepares when the door does open. He also emphasized that youths believe in and want to help themselves. “If you cannot help yourself, no one will help you,” he said, “however, if people see that you are helping yourself, they will be willing.”

Turner witnessed Wichita change, in particular the elimination of much racial discrimination in housing, employment, and social life.

Yet, he felt that the movement for Civil Rights, at least in Wichita, reached a dead end, largely because it failed to comprehend the real significance of Martin Luther King’s work.

Turner said the basis of King’s movement was economic. Reviewing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Turner pointed out the reason the boycott was successful was that Black people exercised their economic power. The bus company lost money because Black people refused to ride the buses.

As a consequence, the company was forced to not only allow African Americans to sit in the bus but also change their racial policies in general because they were losing money.

Not all the changes Turner saw in Wichita were good.

By the 1980s, the neighborhood grocery, professional offices and Dunbar Theatre had closed, the clientele was changing, and crime was increasing.

He remained open. People could still use the store’s antique phone booth, take shelter inside while waiting for a bus, and cash their paychecks.

In Dec. 1989 and Jan. 1990, Turner was robbed at gunpoint in the store. So shaken was he by the experience and the direction of the neighborhood, that the day after Valentine’s Day 1990, he hung a giant “Closed” sign in the front window.

He sent out letters to his customers and sold his surplus inventory to the now defunct local chain Cummings Pharmacy, and worked for a while as pharmacist at the chain’s 959 N. Emporia location.

Turner died a year later, at age 66 in July 1991.

When a newspaper reporter interviewed him ahead of the last day of business at Turner’s Corner Drug, he reflected, “I felt like I had really accomplished something – being Black and 30 years old and owning my own business.”

Sources: The Ebony Shopper magazine (Sept 29, 1989 / 1991) and The Wichita Eagle (Feb. 15, 1990)

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