News 8 is celebrating black history month with a bit of Connecticut’s hidden history. It’s the story of the daughter of a woman who was enslaved in Virginia, who went on to become the first female pharmacist in Connecticut.
A true trailblazer, Anna Louise James was known to generations of people in Old Saybrook simply as ‘Ms. James’.
“She was just all things to all people,” Barbara Maynard, long-time Old Saybrook resident.
The life of Anna Louise James is truly one to celebrate. Born in 1886, she graduated from the Brooklyn College School of Pharmacy, later becoming the first female pharmicist in Connecticut.
James took over the pharmacy in 1917, when its previous owner, her brother-in-law Peter Lane, went off to fight in World War I. She would later re-name the center James Pharmacy.
At the time, James was one of just a handful of African Americans in town, but she would quickly become part of the fabric of the community.
“She always gave you the feeling of, ‘Don’t worry abot it honey, I can take care of it for you. She was kind of like a member of everybody’s family,” Maynard.
Today, the place where Ms. James worked and lived for decades remains one of the town’s most famous structures.
Shelly Taylor, a former owner of the property, has become somethng of a historian on Anna Louise James, going to great lengths to keep the James legacy alive.
“This building is one of the most famous historic buildings in town,” Taylor.
Maynard remembers vividly coming to Ms. James looking for help.
“If you had a cut from a clam shell, if you were bitten by a crab, if you had poisen ivy, you went to Ms. James,” Maynard says. “She would not only treat it, but sell you the medication you wanted.”
James Pharmacy, according to Maynard, was the place to be in town – a gathering spot for regular folk and the famous, like Fenwick resident and legendary film star Katherine Hepburn, who was known to stop by with her hollywood friend.
“She would come in and everybody would know her of course, she was friendly, she would get her papers, she would come with Spencer Tracey. I remember that.’
Anna Louise James ran the pharmacy for 50 years, all the while living in an apartment upstairs. What was the pharmacy then, is now a bed and breakfast, run by Eileen Sotille and her husband Paul.
“You can imagine Ms. James going up and opening up these windows and greeting customers and having a nice cool breeze running through her pharmacy. It’s just very innovative,’ Eileen Sottille, James Pharmacy owner.
Fitting for a woman who defied odds to become a community treasure-whose legacy continues to be celebrated.
“We would like people to enjoy the James Pharmacy 300 years from now and see the quality and how special this place is and what a difference Ms. James made,” says Sottille. “As long as James Pharmacy is open, people will continue to tell her story.”
Anna Louise James passed away in Old Saybrook in 1977. The building where her pharmacy was housed is now on the national register of historic places.