Sidney Barthwell, founder of the once largest black-owned drugstore chain in the United States, was born on February 17, 1906 in Cordele, Georgia. As a young man he attended Lucius H. Holsey Academy of Excellence in Fitzgerald. In 1922, he left Georgia when he was 14 to join his father in Chicago and found work in a meat packing plant. Barthwell attended the prestigious Cass Technical High School where he was enrolled in a course that specialized in pharmacological sciences. After graduating from high school in 1925, Barthwell then attended Detroit Technological Institute (now Wayne State University’s College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions) graduating in 1929 with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy. Barthwell was so poor at the time that the dean of the college had to loan him $25 to pay for his diploma. Barthwell’s alma mater later honored him by establishing the Sidney Barthwell Endowed Scholarship in 1996 for African American students pursuing pharmacy.
Despite possessing a college degree, Barthwell initially struggled to find work in the discriminatory atmosphere of the early 1930s. The pharmacy that eventually did hire Barthwell was not only unlicensed, but also it was quickly evident that the business was financially insolvent. Undeterred, he took over the failed pharmacy in 1933 and renamed it Barthwell Drugs. It did not take long for Barthwell to become a well-known and much respected figure in Detroit. Barthwell made a point to help blacks by either employing them or finding them work with other pharmacists. Dozens of pharmacists would later claim they had their start at one of Barthwell’s stores.
Barthwell began opening a new store about every two years until he had 13 stores around Detroit. It was not unusual at the time for pharmacies to have a soda fountain and sell ice cream. Three of Barthwell’s stores sold ice cream exclusively. Although he did expand steadily, it was often difficult for Barthwell to get loans from banks and he would often have to get more than one loan to finance a new store. This situation stemmed partly from discriminatory banking policies at the time, but also due to the economic instability of the Depression. Barthwell Drugs stores eventually became a substantial source of employment during the harsh economic times, especially with young black people. Shopping malls and national chains eventually drove Barthwell Drugs out of business, the last closing in 1987.
Barthwell was also the first African American member of the Detroit Retail Druggist Association, president of the Booker T. Washington Business Association, a lifelong member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a charter member of the Alpha Beta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi at Wayne State University.
Barthwell married his wife, Gladys, on Christmas Day 1936 after a full day of work in his store. They had two children, Akosua and Sidney Jr. Sidney Barthwell died at age 99 on June 25, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan.