First Black in-state graduate recalls a lifetime of persevering to build a legacy in Tucson.
Charles Kendrick worked hard as a kid in the 1940s trying to make money in Texarkana, Texas. He wrangled razorback hogs and cattle in the stockyards for 25 cents an hour and shined shoes.
He fondly remembers the town’s drugstore, with its magical selection of ice cream. But it was the store’s Black owner who made the biggest impression on Kendrick. This was a man who didn’t have to work out in the hot sun, who had a house and – in a sign of true prosperity – had four matching tires on his car.
“Poor folks couldn’t buy four tires at one time,” Kendrick said, noting that the car’s windows all rolled down and no springs poked up through the seats.
Young Charles made a decision: “This is living. I better do what he’s doing.”
So, he did.
Kendrick, who turned 92 in October, not only has lived history – he is history. He is the first Black in-state graduate of the University of Arizona’s R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy.
“It’s been an interesting 92 years,” Kendrick said.
Kendrick graduated from the College of Pharmacy in 1955. His diploma hangs framed, surrounded by a black mat, along with other senior-year mementos, including a black-and-white portrait, a student activity ticket and a graduation program.
His dream was to own a drugstore, just like his childhood hero. Problem was, no bank would loan him money to start the business. That was a common issue for the Black community back then, he said.
The building on South Park Avenue that he constructed with his own two hands has never housed a pharmacy. Instead, it’s home to a soon-to-open Mexican restaurant and Kendrick’s passion project: a Black history museum, which he started with a friend in 1998.
He has accumulated more than 3,000 artifacts over the years. “Spending my inheritance on antiques,” joked his daughter Rhonda Kendrick Moniz.
She’s working to relaunch the museum as the nonprofit Tucson Center for Black Life.
Had pharmacy not panned out, Kendrick’s backup plan was to be a history teacher. You could argue he’s done that, too, the way he weaves visitors through the museum and explains the dusty, carefully numbered items, which include pharmaceutical treasures like old medicine bottles, beakers and even a whiskey still. In the days of Prohibition, Kendrick said, only drugstores could legally sell alcohol – by prescription.
The Kendrick family has been working with Bryan Carter, PhD, director of the UArizona College of Humanities’ Center for Digital Humanities, to create an online museum. Kendrick Moniz said they’ve talked about creating a holographic version of her father so people can hear directly from him the stories not often learned in history books. Until then, an Archive Tucson oral history by UArizona University Libraries will have to do.
In the 1950s, when Kendrick was at UArizona, pharmacy programs in the South were segregated and male dominated. His UArizona senior class photo from 1955 shows just one woman. Today, female students outnumber men in two of the three College of Pharmacy programs. Out of 412 students working toward a bachelor of science degree in pharmaceutical sciences, 32% identify as male and 67% identify as female.
Additionally, 4% identify as Black, according to 2023 College of Pharmacy statistics.
“Having Charles attend the College of Pharmacy as a student in the 1950s is a pivotal piece of our university’s history,” said Rick Schnellmann, PhD, dean of the Coit College of Pharmacy. “In many ways, Charles paved the way for all types of students to be at the UA, not just in pharmacy, and his legacy will live on through our diverse and talented student body.”
Working hard toward a degree
After their mother died of tuberculosis, Kendrick and his older brother were taken in and raised by their grandparents in Texas. It was during the Depression and their dad had already left the family and moved to the West.
As a teen, Kendrick came to Tucson to be with his father. His dad worked two jobs and so did Kendrick to get through college. Kendrick described himself as a fair student who really enjoyed pharmacology.
He rode his bike along South Park Avenue “3 and 6/10 miles backwards and forwards and all uphill” to campus. Kendrick crossed railroad tracks on his journey and sometimes he’d be late for class because of the train. He pedaled past a neighborhood where many professors lived and no one shut their gates, so their little dogs would chase him. There weren’t many Black students at UArizona and they’d all gather at a barbershop south of campus to swap stories, he said.
Though he didn’t have a lot of spare time between his studies, Army ROTC and jobs at a grocery store and lab, Kendrick said he loved going to UArizona football games.
“I had two left feet, so I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I was a spectator. It was real fun.”
After graduation, Kendrick worked at Pima County Hospital — today, Banner – University Medical Center South — for 42 years, including 18 as the outpatient pharmacy supervisor. He hasn’t slowed down a bit in retirement. The father of four ran a barbecue restaurant, Mr. K’s BBQ, alongside the Black history museum. These days, he’s been painting in acrylics and sketching and giving museum tours and talks on request.
Helping future students
Kendrick said he visited the UArizona campus in May when his granddaughter graduated with a degree in psychology – summa cum laude no less. She’s now working toward a master’s degree at UArizona.
Future College of Pharmacy students will benefit from a scholarship endowment in Kendrick’s name, courtesy of his cousin, James Pughsley, PhD, which was announced in August.
“It surprised the hell out of me,” Kendrick said, smiling.
When asked what advice he’d give Black students in college today, Kendrick said, “You’d better have a Plan B. In this day and age, maybe even a Plan C. Stay in school. You’ve got to have that degree. You have to learn to do something for yourself.”
The Tucson Center for Black Life
Charles Kendrick opened the original Black history museum, located at 1834 S. Park Ave., with his friend Shad Blair, who died in 2020. Kendrick’s daughter Rhonda Kendrick Moniz said it will be reimagined as the Tucson Center for Black Life. The center was established as a nonprofit and Kendrick Moniz said plans include a community center at its original location, traveling displays and a digital archive. For more information, email info@TCBL.org.