Leaders petition Walgreens after store closes in South Carolina

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Donald Gist, a Columbia civil rights attorney, speaks at a press conference regarding the closure of Walgreens on North Main Street. He is joined, from left, by Columbia Urban League President J.T. McLawhorn, state Sen. John Scott, City Councilman Sam Davis, and S.C. NAACP President Brenda Murphy. Sarah Ellis sellis@thestate.com

Crusader Staff Report

A coalition of Black leaders have mounted a campaign after a Walgreens store closed in a Black neighborhood in Columbia, S.C. during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Coalition for Health Equity in May sent a letter to Walgreens Boots Alliance headquarters in north suburban Deerfield, IL, asking the retailer to reconsider reversing its decision to keep the store at 5900 North Main Street.

James T. McLawhorn, Jr.

The letter was addressed to Walgreens CEO Stefano Pessina and Executive Chairman Richard Ashworth. The letter was signed by James T. McLawhorn, Jr., president and CEO of the Columbia Urban League, Brenda Murphy of the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, South Carolina State Senator John Scott, Jr., and South Carolina State Representative Leon Scott.

Copies of the letter were sent to various national political and Civil Rights leaders, including Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, South Carolina U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressman James Clyburn.

Leaders say the community was excited when Walgreens in February 2019 replaced the former Rite Aid Pharmacy, which had operated for 40 years in the community.

“So, you can imagine our disappointment to learn this location is closing after only a year of operation. The loss of healthcare access for a predominately African-Americans community is immeasurable,” the letter reads. “The community depends on this location for life-sustaining medications and other health needs. Many individuals in the community have no means of transportation and walk to this location; hence, Walgreens’ closure will create an extreme hardship.”

The letter reminded Walgreens about its corporate social responsibility initiative created in 2019 to build healthy communities.

Leaders say the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the health disparities in the African American community in Columbia, S.C. and the problem will get worse without a Walgreens and pharmacy in the neighborhood.

“If there was a business or CSR rationale for serving this community, that rationale is more poignant today. The closure of this location will create a healthcare desert in this community by removing pharmacy access that has been in place for over two decades.

Following this closure, the nearest Walgreens location is more than 5 miles away from the Main Street location, making it all but out of reach for residents of this community.

(Sarah Ellis sellis@thestate.com)

“We respectfully urge you to reconsider this decision and stand by your Corporate Social Responsibility action plan to promote health care access and support these vulnerable populations who depend on Walgreens primarily for their medications and wellness needs.

In 2016, Walgreens closed many stores in Black neighborhoods across the country. In Chicago, at least 5 stores were closed in Black neighborhoods on the South Side, including one that operated near the Crusader office for more than 55 years. The loss of that store expanded a food and pharmacy desert in Woodlawn. It was one of 200 stores that Walgreens closed that year. In 2019, Walgreens announced that it was closing an additional 200 stores, including one in Calumet Heights on 95th Street. Residents voiced their frustration to Alderman Gregory Mitchell (7th Ward) at a community meeting, but Walgreen closed the store anyway.

In 2017, Walgreens closed its store in the Miller neighborhood in Gary despite pleas from activists and then Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

In a statement, McLawhorn said Walgreens’ decision to close the only store in a Black neighborhood in Columbia, S.C. is a “cruel decision seems insensitive and callous, coming in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis that has sharpened the focus on health disparities in the country. A coalition of African American leaders, some of whom live in these Columbia communities, have sought to have a conversation with the local store and the national office in Chicago but we have been summarily ignored.”

In response to the letter, Walgreens spokesperson Erin Loveher released this statement.

“As previously announced, we are undertaking a transformational cost management program to accelerate the ongoing transformation of our business, enable investments in key areas and to become a more efficient enterprise. The Columbia, S.C. store you’re inquiring about is part of this effort.

“Walgreens has multiple locations in many markets and we are making every effort to ensure minimal disruption to customers and patients.

“As such, in an effort to ensure access to pharmacy services, we entered an agreement with a nearby pharmacy to acquire this store’s prescription records.”

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