Ike and Mike Katz, the owners of the Katz Drug Store chain, were more than entrepreneurs in their hometown of Kansas City; they were icons. To civil rights activist Clara Luper, Katz Drug Store was a symbol. It was chosen deliberately because it was a chain and because of its location. Outside its front doors was one of the busiest bus stops in the city, where hundreds of blacks waited to transfer across town. And because it was a chain, integrating one likely meant integrating them all. But it is unclear whether segregation was a Katz policy or the result of its Oklahoma City manager following local customs. The issue came to a head 50 years ago when young black activists in Oklahoma City went to Katz asking to be served. Manager J.B. Masoner denied the youths service for two days, finally serving them on the third. He was quoted at the time as instructing his staff to treat the children respectfully but deny them service. In private talks with Luper, he apparently admitted that he would like to serve the children but was unable to unless other restaurants did so. He feared being the only integrated restaurant in town might put Katz at a competitive disadvantage. By the third day of the protest, Aug. 22, 1958, Masoner reportedly called company headquarters about the protests. Later that day, the children were served. The following day, a company executive said Masoner's decision not to serve them was in violation of company policy. "We did not know about the Oklahoma situation until yesterday,” Tim Blond, Katz senior vice president and general manager, said at the time. He added that the Oklahoma City manager was then instructed to follow the company's policy of "serving everyone who comes into our store.”
No memory of protestsBy this time, the Katz brothers no longer ran the business. Isaac had died in 1956. His younger brother Mike died in 1962. At the time of the protests, Isaac's son, Earl Katz, was a senior officer, but the company was publicly traded. Earl Katz Jr., is now 70 years old. He was just entering college when the protests started. He started working at Katz during the same year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning separate but equal, was passed in Congress. He worked there for 13 years, until the mid-1970s when his father sold out to Skaggs Drugs. He has no memory of the protests. When interviewed recently, he did not know who Clara Luper or any of the youthful protesters from 50 years ago were. These protests are little more than a footnote in history. More chronicled are the Katz brothers themselves, the ultra-aggressive and ultra-competitive immigrant merchants. They came to the U.S. from Austria, when Isaac was 9 and Mike was 1. At 13, Isaac Katz opened a fruit stand, with profits parlayed into the purchase of a rundown hotel, with a tobacco shop and candy store to follow. Then the U.S. government released a wartime edict requiring all stores but drugstores to close by 6 p.m. So the Katz brothers got into the drugstore business. In 1929, the two original Katz stores grossed $5 million. In the next decade, Katz had opened 16 stores in Kansas City and 13 others in the region.