When a CVS Exec Was On the Frontline of Responding to Racial Division in Boston

Jul 23, 2013

The reaction to the Trayvon Martin case is the latest reminder of how Americans remain sharply divided in how they view questions involving race and justice. Tensions over these issues reached an apex in US cities after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. As it happens, a founding partner of CVS, Ralph Hoagland, was deeply involved in responding to the resulting crisis in Boston.

While Boston Mayor Kevin White had serious reservations about the demands of an umbrella group known as the Black United Front, Hoagland was a driving force in persuading liberal whites to help raise $100 million demanded by the front and give it to the group with "no strings attached." The details are recounted in Common Ground, the late J. Anthony Lukas' Pulitzer-winning account of Boston's school desegregation crisis.

As Lukas wrote, "Hoagland was something of a phenomenon in Boston business circles -- a Princeton and Harvard Business School graduate who, while still in his twenties, had built CVS into a multi-million dollar enterprise. But he approached his social responsibilities with equal intensity."

Hoagland and other concerned citizens initially tried raising the $100 million through individual $1,000 donations -- an effort that sparked contributions from Senator Edward Kennedy and Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge (but not novelist John Updike, who was personally pitched by Hoagland during a walk on an Ipswich beach). Yet, as Lukas writes, "much of Boston's establishment -- black as well as white -- regarded the United Front's leaders as either crooks who would take the money and run to Brazil or revolutionaries who would buy guns and bombs." The fundraising effort also marked a challenge to established private philanthropic efforts.

In the end, the group established by Hoagland raised $1 million - one percent of the original target, but it helped to focus attention on issues of racial inequity. The money mostly went into loans for small black enterprises, "most of which eventually went out of business," Lukas wrote.

Hoagland founded CVS as Consumer Value Stores with two brothers, Stanley and Sidney Goldstein. The trio found success by opening a store selling health and beauty products in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1963. It was years later when the company moved its corporate headquarters to Woonsocket, the Goldsteins' home town.