Confronting Change

A Segregated America

Nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, many businesses and institutions in the United States – and in the American South, in particular – still had segregated facilities that condemned Americans of color to second-class citizenship. The Carolina Theatre in Durham was one of the businesses which segregated their establishment, but a series of events beginning in 1955 would soon herald a historic change for the theater, the South, and the nation.

Powerful, peaceful protests by fearless African-Americans, including the boycott of the busing system in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955-56; the historic sit-in at the partitioned Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham in 1957 and the sit-in by college students at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro in 1960, created a climate to spur challenges of the racially divisive laws which had governed America for far too long.

 

Targeted for Change

In 1959, North Carolina attorney Floyd B. McKissick Sr. began directing the efforts of the newly founded youth chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to protest the policies of segregation at the Carolina Theatre and other theaters in Durham. As a result of being a city-owned building, the Carolina had been using public funding to continue the divisive policies of segregation. Attorney McKissick and the NAACP youth leaders – John Edwards, Vivian McCoy, and Walter Riley – would target the Carolina on this basis.

At the time, Durham had several movie theaters, each governed by their own policy of racial segregation. The Black-owned Regal Theater in the Hayti District was located within Durham’s African-American community, but some theaters located in other parts of the city refused admission to Black people entirely. Since opening in 1926, the Carolina Theatre had admitted Black patrons to its “colored” balcony. Atty. McKissick and others began challenging this system of inequality in 1961.

 

Prolonged Protests

On January 20, 1961, the same day President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., demonstrators from Black high schools and colleges around Durham peacefully began protesting the policies of segregation at the Carolina and Center theaters in the downtown section of the city. Anti-segregationists alternated turns picketing in the frigid air of January and February with a goal of forcing the venues to allow access to any seat in their halls to any patron regardless of race or color.

Walter Riley (right) and an unknown activist (left) are confronted by Theatre Manager Milo Crawford and a Durham police officer during a “Round Robin” demonstration on March 14, 1962. Demonstrators were advised not to give their names to police for fear of white reprisals. Photograph by Jim Sparks, courtesy of the Herald-Sun

By March of 1961, leaders of Durham’s Black community and faculty members from North Carolina College and Duke began to support the ongoing protests of the theaters and rally behind the integration efforts. In late 1961, the local NAACP chapter petitioned Durham City Council, using the city-owned status of the Carolina Theatre to challenge the legality of the venue’s continued operation. Council referred the measure to the mayor’s committee on human relations.

In January of 1962, the mayor’s committee decided the Carolina Theatre should negotiate the terms of integration, but theater management refused to participate. Council announced it was “not opposed” to integration, but the theater management continued its obstinate stance through continued protests that indicated a shift in community sentiment and heightened tensions that threatened to disrupt the peace.

In March of 1962 the “Round Robin” protests began, as Black patrons approached the White ticket window and were turned away only to resolutely return to the back of the line and continue requesting admissions. In April of 1962, the mayor’s committee declared an impasse between theater management and protestors, some of whom then filed a lawsuit in an effort to force the theater to desegregate.

 

A Separate Experience

Until the theater was integrated in 1963, “Negro” patrons had to buy their tickets at a window on the side of the building and then had to climb 97 steps to their balcony seats. These steps not only separated them from White patrons on the first level, they were a tangible indicator of the separate worlds in which “White” and “Colored” people lived, and the second class status to which African-Americans were relegated. Though a painful reminder to some, this depiction of the stairs is included in the exhibit “lest we forget.”

Image showing the original “Colored” box office and staircase to the second balcony captured during the 1991 theater renovations.

The Journey to Integration

1955
Peaceful protests begin nationwide.
Peaceful protests begin nationwide.
Photo credit: The News & Observer

Following the landmark Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated that schools be desegregated, a wave of anti-Black violence swept the nation. In response, campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience sprung up around the nation, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

1957
Durham-based youth NAACP is created.

Known as the Crusaders, this chapter was made up of Black students from Hillside High School, the Bull City Barber College, De Shazer’s Beauty College, and Durham Business College and led by attorney Floyd B. McKissick.

 

Protestors would soon picket Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Parlor, one of the nation’s first significant civil rights protests. Over the ensuing years, youth chapter members engaged in persistent activism, utilizing methods such as marching, picketing, singing, and praying multiple days a week to actively work towards dismantling segregation in Durham.

Sit-in at Royal Ice Cream Parlor.
Sit-in at Royal Ice Cream Parlor.
Photo credit: Durham Herald-Sun

Rev. Douglas E. Moore, a pastor at Asbury Temple Methodists Church, and seven of his Sunday session attendees staged a sit-in at Royal Ice Cream Parlor, sitting in the whites-only section asking to be served. When the group refused to move, the police were called, and the group was arrested for trespassing. Despite trying to appeal their case to the Durham County Superior Court and the State Supreme Court, both were denied stating that the 14th Amendment only allows protections of discrimination by the state, not private facilities.

 

Although often overshadowed by the Woolworth sit-in, the Royal Ice Cream Parlor protest served as a pioneering model for subsequent sit-ins. Activists scrutinized the tactics employed in this pivotal event, using them as a blueprint to refine and enhance strategies for future sit-ins and protests in the ongoing struggle against segregation.

Simkins vs. City of Greensboro.
Simkins vs. City of Greensboro.
Photo credit: Greensboro News and Records

In December, six Black men paid greens fees and started to play golf at the Gillespie Park Golf Club, a city-owned golf course in Greensboro, NC, that was leased to a private company. Despite paying, the men were told they could not play golf, but did so anyways. The men were arrested later that night and charged with trespassing. Civil rights leaders examined this case and used it for future protests where taxpayer dollars were being used to continue segregation.

1959
Attorney Floyd B. McKissick Sr. plans for protests at the Carolina Theatre and other theaters.
1960
The NAACP petitions the Durham City Council for many racial reforms.
The NAACP petitions the Durham City Council for many racial reforms.
Photo credit: The Carolina Times
The NAACP advocated for the integration of the Carolina Theatre, alongside other racial reforms such as school integration. The City Council referred the petition to the Mayor’s Human Resource Committee.
Sit-ins begin at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC.
Sit-ins begin at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC.
Photo credit: Greensboro News and Records

The Greensboro Four, consisting of Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, were young Black students enrolled in their freshman year at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. United by a common desire to combat segregation, they frequently gathered in their dorm rooms to strategize and discuss ways to challenge racial inequality.

 

Influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy for nonviolent protest, the Greensboro Four sought to address the segregational policies of the F. W. Woolworth Company. Upon sitting in the white-only section of Woolworth’s lunch counter, they were denied service, prompting a daily return with an increasing number of protestors who often faced harassment from other patrons. While not the first sit-in of the civil rights movement, the Greensboro sit-ins were pivotal and widely recognized, catalyzing the broader sit-in movement that engaged 70,000 participants.

1961
Durham leases the Carolina Theatre to Charles Abercrombie.
Durham leases the Carolina Theatre to Charles Abercrombie.

While now a nonprofit, the Carolina Theatre of Durham’s building is a city-owned facility. From 1976 through the late 1970s, the Carolina Theatre was privately managed, while the building was owned by the city of Durham.

Demonstrators peacefully protest the policies of segregation at the Carolina Theatre; The local NAACP chapter petitions the Durham City Council challenging the legality of the theater’s continued operation.
Demonstrators peacefully protest the policies of segregation at the Carolina Theatre; The local NAACP chapter petitions the Durham City Council challenging the legality of the theater’s continued operation.

NAACP lawyers used the Supreme Court decision Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, which ruled that publicly owned buildings must desegregate, as a starting point for their case.

1962
Superior Court Judge Hamilton Hobgood issues a restraint against picketing at the Carolina Theatre.
Superior Court Judge Hamilton Hobgood issues a restraint against picketing at the Carolina Theatre.

Following a two-day mass demonstration, Judge Hamilton Hobgood issued a restraining order instructing 34 students of the NAACP Youth Group, who organized the protest, to refrain from visiting the theater. Copies of the restraining order were posted outside the theater and distributed to each of the 34 students.

Round Robin demonstrations begin at the theater.
Round Robin demonstrations begin at the theater.

Protesters initiated Round Robins, a tactic where Black patrons would request a ticket at the white ticket window, be denied, and then move to the back of the line to repeat the request. This method proved more effective as it disrupted the theater’s normal operations, blocking white customers from entering the queue in a timely manner.

1963
Wense Grabarek becomes mayor of Durham.
Wense Grabarek becomes mayor of Durham.
Photo credit: Durham County Library

On the night of Mayor Grabarek’s election, 130 Black people were arrested after staging sit-ins at six restaurants throughout Durham. The next day 700 more Black protestors were arrested for trespassing after staging sit-ins at Howard Johnson’s. On May 20th thousands of protestors marched at City Hall.

A 20-day trial period tests a “controlled” integration of the theater.
A 20-day trial period tests a “controlled” integration of the theater.

Protestors could request tickets to attend an integrated screening. No more than six tickets were permitted to Black patrons and tickets had to be arranged in advance. Box office staff would screen for approved names and allow them to enter the theater.

 

Many protestors felt like this process was degrading. Protestor Bessie McLauren, who helped arrange the tickets remembers feeling like white Durhamites were saying, “you crawl. As long as we make you crawl.” Ultimately, McLauren participated because she felt it was the only hope in breaking down the barriers to social equality.

The Carolina Theatre becomes a fully integrated theater.

Protests persisted for two and a half years, ultimately proving successful due to the collective pressure from protestors, shifting public opinion, and changes in government leadership.

 

Despite integration, many Black individuals refrained from attending the theater. While some Black adults, accustomed to Jim Crow, viewed this integration as progress, Black youth regarded it merely as a beginning. They extended their protests to advocate for desegregation in various public accommodations across the city and the nation.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in a public address.

Numerous protestors advocating for the desegregation of the Carolina Theatre were present. The speech further ignited activism both statewide and nationwide.

1965
The Civil Rights Act is enacted.

After the Civil Rights Act was enacted, significant strides were made towards racial equality, including the desegregation of public facilities and the promotion of voting rights for African Americans. However, challenges persisted, leading to ongoing efforts to combat systemic discrimination and promote social justice.