Leonard “Doc” Muse, who for 65 years – from the era of Jim Crow to the election of an African-American president – watched over the Nauck community from his perch behind the counter of the Green Valley Pharmacy, died the weekend of Aug. 19-20. He was 94 years old.
Muse, who owned the iconic Shirlington Road establishment since 1952, served as a community beacon in the days when black residents often had to use the back door of pharmacies to get their prescriptions. In more recent years, he was acclaimed as not just a link to the past, but also a man with a commitment to his community – whether extending credit to those who couldn’t pay for medicine, or helping students in need pay for college.
“Doc was a legend,” said Portia Clark, who serves as president of the Nauck Civic Association and grew up there. “He will be missed by the Nauck community that he helped so much.”
Born in Delray Beach on Florida’s east coast on May 8, 1923, Muse enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, serving in the engineering corps at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri until sickness led him in 1944 to move to the District of Columbia, using G.I. Bill benefits to attend the Howard University School of Pharmacy. He graduated in 1948.
In 1952, Muse and partner Waverly Jones purchased the building where, since 1942, Hyman’s Grocery had been located. Three years later, Muse bought out Jones, becoming sole proprietor of Green Valley Pharmacy. (“Green Valley” and “Nauck” frequently are used interchangeably to describe the historically African-American South Arlington neighborhood between Columbia Pike and Shirlington.)
Even in the era of segregation, the pharmacy offered services to both black and white Arlingtonians. Its all-day food counter was especially popular, and not just for the caliber of the offerings.
Elsewhere in the county, black residents “didn’t have anywhere to go to sit down and eat,” Muse said in 2013 oral history conducted by Judith Knudsen and Sara Collins for the Center for Local History of the Arlington library system.
“They were denied that,” Muse recalled. “They had to go get the food [from restaurants] and take it all out.”
Like several other youngsters in the neighborhood, Clark had her first job working at the pharmacy, and her mother operated the food counter.
Among those who could be found waiting their turn at the counter back in the day was young William Newman Jr., who has fond memories of walking over from nearby Drew Elementary School to buy candy.
Newman grew up to become a lawyer and elected official, and currently serves as chief judge of the Arlington Circuit Court. He recalls those earlier early days with clarity and appreciation.
“The Green Valley Pharmacy is an institution in our community,” Newman told the Sun Gazette. “Doc Muse was always there for us – I will miss him.”
From the 1950s through the 1990s, Muse had to contend with multiple challenges, from young toughs robbing the pharmacy to seemingly endless hassles from police. “Those were hard times,” he said in the 2013 oral history.
With recreational opportunities for African-Americans limited in the days before integration, Nauck became a central gathering point.
“We were all down there together,” Muse said. “Saturdays and Sundays, you couldn’t hardly get down here, there were so many people.”
In more recent years, Muse was joined by his granddaughter, Zakia Al-Amin, PharmD, in providing services at the pharmacy, which has remained open seven days a week, including holidays.
The pharmacy building, designed by D.C.-based architect Sanford Bransom (his only work in Arlington), overlooks a community that has been in transition. Once exclusively African-American, Nauck has become a melting pot of residents, and work has been ongoing to transform a community gathering area immediately across Shirlington Road from the pharmacy into a full-fledged town square.
In 2013, the Green Valley Pharmacy was designated a local historic district by the Arlington County government, becoming the first African-American-owned business in the county to receive such a designation. Muse supported the effort, which will provide some protections to the building’s architecture.
That year – 2013 – was a significant one for Muse. He was honored with the Community Appreciation Award by the Arlington branch of the NAACP and was profiled in the magazine of the American Pharmacists Association. Also that year, he and the Green Valley Pharmacy were honored by the Virginia General Assembly, which noted that “the building’s simple architecture belies a rich heritage as a symbol of unity, hope and compassion.”
Muse, a modest man, took the accolades with grace and humility. “Thank you very much,” was the extent of his speechifying when, in 2014, the county government installed a talking historic marker outside the pharmacy.
Push a button on it, and you’ll hear parts of an interview with Muse conducted by Cynthia Liccese-Torres of the county government, detailing his schooling at Howard and his decision to locate, and stay, in Arlington.
“I worked hard, long hours,” he recalled of the early days.
Asked to describe the biggest impact he might have had on the community, Muse said it could well be efforts that were made to encourage young people to work toward a brighter future.
“I think the pharmacy changed a lot of kids’ minds about going to school,” he said.
Among those Muse provided counsel to over the years was Paul Ferguson, who grew up in nearby Fairlington and would go on to serve on the County Board and currently as clerk of the Circuit Court.
“He provided advice to young people,” Ferguson told the Sun Gazette. “I can personally attest that he made me feel comfortable when I visited the store.”
Muse was symbolic of a uniquely local culture, Ferguson said.
“Arlington is different than many communities, in that business leaders work behind the scenes, rather than seeking public recognition or attention,” he said. “Doc Muse is an example of this, as he never sought public recognition for the leadership and services he gave. He provided medicine with first-class service to his customers, and assisted those who had trouble paying.”
Asked in the 2013 oral history to sum up his legacy, Muse paused before answering.
“I worked hard and I tried to build a community,” he said. “I was proud of that – trying to help the community, my people.”