Connections Across Caste: My Grandfather and his Jewish Mentor

Andre Kearns
7 min readApr 18, 2024


Recently, award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay released her powerful film, Origin, a biopic based on the life of Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson which chronicles her writing of the book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.

Wilkerson’s book challenges the assumption that racism is a singular, siloed explanation for discrimination and inequity in our world. She challenges us to see racism as one manifestation of a broader caste system humans have been building since the beginning of time, based on a variety of discerned differences between people.

To prove her point she notes that while Jewish and Nazi Germans are both considered “white”, Jews in Germany were branded as inferior and relegated to the bottom of the German caste based on historical European antisemitism and religious difference.

Wilkerson explored how caste has created division and injustice throughout history. My own family history revealed the inverse, how caste connected a Jewish pharmacist named David Bernard Schwetz with my African American grandfather James E. Richards Sr. through a shared vision and mission of unity, justice, and selfless service to the community.

“I want to hire your best.”

David Bernard Schwetz called Dr. Chauncey Ira Cooper, Howard University’s Dean of Pharmacy in 1950, wanting to recruit one of his top students as a staff pharmacist at Arthurs Drug Store in Norfolk, VA. Dr. Cooper who made history at Howard in 1938 as the first African American to serve as chief administrator of a U.S. college of pharmacy and served as dean until 1972, had just the candidate.

James Edward Richards (b.1920), a native of Suffolk, VA, just a short drive from Norfolk, had entered the Howard School of Pharmacy in 1946 with a unique background. Having already earned a bachelor’s in chemistry from South Carolina State College in 1942, he enlisted in the Army in 1943 to serve his country in World War II. Before heading off, he married my grandmother Athalia Joyner, also of Suffolk. By the time he landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, he was a father to a newborn son, my uncle (James E. Richards Jr.). After completing his military service and returning to the U.S., he found that race made it difficult for him to pursue a career in chemistry. He’d sought a position as a chemist with the Army but was refused. African American veterans, while entitled to GI Bill benefits like their white counterparts, encountered discrimination in university admissions. My grandfather chose to enter the Pharmacy program at Howard University, “The Mecca” of black higher education in America, where he excelled as a top student and served as President of his senior class.

The Schwetz Family Immigrates to America

David Bernard Schwetz was born to Jewish parents Boris and Bluma Schwetz in 1904 in Vitebsk, a city in modern-day Belarus, bordering Russia. In 1907, at age 3 his family immigrated to the United States, boarding the ship Patricia in Hamburg Germany headed to New York City. By 1910 the Schwetz family lived in Portsmouth, Virginia amongst mostly Black neighbors. They had a general store on High Street with their two-story living quarters connected to the store. Schwetz completed his education, graduating from Wilson High School in Portsmouth in 1922, and later earned a pharmacy degree from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, around 1925.

Schwetz returned to Norfolk in 1926 and purchased Arthurs Drug Store located on 744 Church St. Founded in 1910 as Highland Pharmacy, the store was purchased in 1921 by Arthur Goldmeer who renamed it after himself. Goldmeer ran it until 1926, when he mysteriously vanished from Norfolk, prompting his wife Lena Goldmeer to sell it to Schwetz. By 1931 Lena Goldmeer had divorced Arthur Goldmeer citing desertion as the cause. Arthur had apparently fled his marriage and relocated to Boston, where he remarried, ultimately passing away in 1965.

The Richards Family Moves to Norfolk

After graduating from Howard in 1950, James Richards joined Arthurs as a staff pharmacist until 1954. He found a home for his family in the Liberty Park Housing Development, established by the Federal Public Housing Authority to accommodate Black veterans returning from WWII. Operated by the Norfolk Housing Authority, Liberty Park was situated east of present-day Norfolk State University. With shared backyards, children enjoyed ample space for play and kite flying. The untended cornfields bordering the yards provided an adventurous maze for them to explore.

Schwetz, known as Dr. Schwetz professionally, and as Buddy or DB to family and friends, was kind to my grandfather and his family, including my grandmother, my uncle, and my mother (Ann Richards Kearns). He loaned my grandfather money to buy a new car for his growing family — an emerald-green 1952 Chevy Fleetline. He gave him a raise equal to the car payment when my grandmother was pregnant with my aunt (Patricia Lynn Richards-Spruill) and could no longer work to pay for it. The day my aunt was born, Dr. Schwetz tore up the loan note and told my grandfather that the money for the car was a gift from him for the new baby. From that moment on, my aunt was known as Arthur’s Drug Store Baby.

Arthurs, an integrated pharmacy

Dr. David Bernard Schwetz was dedicated to serving the Black community, even though he was white, and Arthur’s operated in the segregated south. His commitment likely came from a profound understanding of ugly implications of caste, born from his experiences as a Jewish immigrant. Recognizing the parallels between segregation Blacks faced in America and the oppression endured by Jews in Europe, he felt a moral imperative within him to stand in solidarity.

Arthur’s was located in Norfolk’s Black community. No one was ever turned away from Arthur’s due to their race. Schwetz hired Black pharmacists to work there. Arthurs was listed in 1954 addition of the “Green Book for Negro Motorists”, the travel guide intended to help African American motorists avoid social obstacles prevalent during the period of racial segregation made famous by the movie Green Book. Perhaps this listing was Dr. Schwetz’s idea, or perhaps he did it at the suggestion of my grandfather, who at that point was contemplating how he wanted to serve the Black community as a pharmacist.

Suffolk Professional Pharmacy

Throughout his life, my grandfather, James E. Richards Sr., fondly known as ‘Doc’ to those in his community, loved sharing stories of Dr. Schwetz, his mentor at Arthurs Drug store. He left Arthur’s in 1954 to open Suffolk Professional Pharmacy (SPP), the first and only black-owned pharmacy in Suffolk, VA so his community could get their prescriptions filled by walking in the front door, a significant step forward in this time of racial segregation. SPP served all people.

Doc was not just a pharmacist; he was a cornerstone in his community. He established SPP in The Fairgrounds area of Suffolk, in partnership with other Black medical professionals, including Dr. Harvey M. Diggs Sr., who owned the building where SPP operated. SPP quickly became known for more than just medical assistance; it supported local civic groups, schools, churches, and even the rescue squad.

SPP was a community gathering spot which featured a full-service soda fountain that offered tasty food. It was here that many young people in Suffolk found their first jobs. Doc ensured that no sick member of the community was ever turned away for lack of money. People knew they could rely on him to fill their prescriptions at any hour, testament to his dedication and compassion.

SPPs reputation as an inclusive and welcoming place for customers was solidified through its listing in the 1963 addition of the Green Book for Negro Motorists. Its legacy was further strengthened when Doc’s daughter, my aunt, “Arthur’s Drug Store Baby,” graduated from Howard Pharmacy School. After a successful career in pharmacy in Washington D.C., she returned to Suffolk to help her father run SPP. The pharmacy served the Suffolk community for 35 years. It closed, but its legacy and impact continue to this day.

Final Thoughts

In closing, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to my aunt Patricia Lynn Richards-Spruill and uncle James E. Richards Jr. for generously sharing their memories of Norfolk, Arthurs, David Bernard Schwetz, and my grandparents, which helped to inform this story. Special thanks also go to Jill Williams and Joe Callahan for facilitating my introduction to Dr. Schwetz’s grandson, Jason, with whom I had a meaningful connection. It’s remarkable to reflect on how, seven decades after our grandfathers collaborated in Norfolk, their grandsons would reunite to exchange stories and reminisce about their families and cherished memories of their grandfathers. This represents the profound power of family history and storytelling. I know DB and Doc are proud.

James Edward Richards (left) at Howard University school of Pharmacy in 1950 and David Bernard Schwetz (right) at the Medical College of Virginia in 1925.
Here I am ready to watch the movie Origin written and directed by Ava DuVernay on the life of Isabel Wilkerson and her experience writing the book Caste.
Dr. Chauncey Ira Cooper, Dean of the Howard University College of Pharmacy from 1941–1972. David Bernard Schwetz called Dr. Cooper looking to hire a top student as staff pharmacist for Arthurs Drug Store. Dr. Cooper was the first African American to serve as chief administrator of a U.S. college of pharmacy. The Howard College of Pharmacy now carries his name.
Howard University College of Pharmacy Class of 1950. The photo of James Edward Richards, class president, sits directly below the photo of Dr. Cooper.
Hamburg Passenger listing for David Bernard Schwetz (listed as Boris). At age 3 he boarded the ship Patricia on August 17, 1907 in Hamburg Germany with his family headed to the United States.
Here is Arthur Goldmeer’s 1920 Year Book listing in the College of Pharmacy of the City of New York. After graduating he moved to Norfolk, VA, bought Highland Pharmacy, and renamed it after himself. By 1926 he abandons his store and wife.
Liberty Park Housing Development in Norfolk, VA circa 1943
The Richards Family in their Liberty Park Home in Norfolk, VA. From left to right my grandmother Athalia Joyner Richards, my uncle, my mother, and my grandfather James E. Richards Sr. My aunt had not yet been born.
Here is an image of what James and Athalia Richard’s first family car, a 1952 emerald-green Chevy Fleetline looked like.
Here’s the 1954 Green Book entry I found for Arthurs Drug Store.
Here’s an article on my grandfather dated June 26, 1954 covering his departure from Arthur to start his own pharmacy in Suffolk.
My grandfather’s pharmacy was listed in the 1963 edition of the Green Book.
Here is a 1993 article on Arthurs Drug Store. Boris Schwetz, David’s son, joined the business in 1959, and eventually took over after his father passed away.
My grandfather James E. Richards Sr. with his daughter, Patricia Lynn Richards-Spruill, Arthur’s Drug Store Baby, a Howard College of Pharmacy graduate who helped him run Suffolk Professional Pharmacy.