ARTS & CULTURE; COMMUNITY
By Diana Newton
During World War II, Hollywood began churning out war films about its heroes and horrors. Movies took Americans into battle in a way that headlines and newsreels could not, with film titles such as Guadalcanal Diary and Bataan.
As the war raged on, movie theaters on Franklin Street were evolving. The old Pickwick Theater had remodeled and reopened as “The Pick” and, by 1941, was under the control of Paramount Pictures. The Carolina Theater was expanding to a new location across Franklin Street from its original site at that time. But its completion was delayed when the War Production Board imposed a work stoppage.
By October 1942, the new Carolina Theater opened as the largest building in the business district, boasting 1,141 leather seats, air conditioning and uniformed ushers. Moviegoers could buy a ticket for 33 cents to see war-themed films, such as Across the Pacific starring Humphrey Bogart, in its elegant atmosphere. The Navy began operating the Village Theater in the Carolina’s former site for educational and entertainment purposes. There were more films to see, more theaters, more comfort—if you were White.
Few moviegoing options were available to the local Black community. They could either drive over 16 miles to sit in the “buzzard’s roost” balcony at Durham’s Carolina Theater, go to Bull City’s Wonderland Theater, or attend Carrboro’s White-owned Hollywood Theater.
In an interview for the video The Town Before Brown: Segregation in Chapel Hill, NC, prior to 1954, Fred Battle, a leading local civil rights activist, said, “It hurt me the most when we were denied to go to the theaters—the Varsity and Carolina.” (The Varsity Theatre opened in 1952 in the former space of the original Carolina Theater.)
While segregation at local movie theaters held fast, there were a few exceptions. Chapel Hill resident Nate Davis, in comments captured by the From the Rock Wall project, enjoyed a cinematic loophole as a kid: “My dad, when we was growing up, worked at the Varsity Theatre as a janitor, and that gave us the opportunity to go and see some of the movies.”
Battle recognized segregation’s color fallacy, sharing, “Occasionally we got a Black person that was real light-skinned. And to fool the system, we got him to go in the theater. And they were unable to detect the difference.”
Segregation in theaters didn’t end with the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In 1958, when the film Hamlet with Laurence Olivier played at the Carolina, several Black school teachers wanted to go see it and devised a clever strategy to gain entry. On a Saturday afternoon, they would ask to “borrow” the two small children of White friends and would be promptly admitted at the box office, per an article of the time in UNC’s Summer School Weekly.
Protesters get organized and take a stand
But finding occasional ways to evade discriminatory policies would not create lasting social change. In April 1960, a group of 10 UNC student religious organizations took action to influence policy change in segregated local businesses. The Carolina and the Varsity were prime targets. Students would stand in front of the theaters and hand out pledge cards to approaching moviegoers. A signed card indicated that the individual’s patronage would continue if the theater offered equal service to everyone. Yet, theater staff refused to accept signed pledge cards.
Then in May 1960, the foreign film Black Orpheus opened at the Carolina. The box office once again refused to sell tickets to members of the Black community, so protestors began sit-ins outside the theater and picketed until the film ended its weekly run.
Soon boycotts and protests of numerous segregated businesses heated up in town. Efforts to desegregate Franklin Street movie theaters reached a tipping point in January 1961 when the acclaimed film musical Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, began playing at the Carolina. A Black English teacher from Lincoln High school asked the Carolina’s owner, E. Carrington Smith, if she could bring her English class to see the film after hours. Smith flatly refused.
The teacher enlisted help from her minister, J.R. Manley, Sr., of Chapel Hill’s First Baptist Church, who then took the matter up with the Ministerial Association. Several ministers joined together to approach Smith. Would he allow the class to see the film? No. Could he offer a Friday night showing that would be open to the entire community? No. Instead, Smith countered with an offer to reserve the final show on Saturday night for Blacks only.
This time, the ministers declined. In a January 5, 1961, letter to the editor of The Daily Tar Heel, 15 ministers—both Black and White—announced their boycott of the Carolina.
Photo from Civil Rights Demonstrations, 7 January 1961, in the Roland Giduz Photographic Collection P0033, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“So we decided to picket the theater,” declared Daniel Pollitt, a former Professor of Law Emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill, whose words were captured by the Southern Oral History Program. One professor and one student would picket for half-hour stints.
“I was the first picketer with a little Black high school girl. I had a sign that said, ‘Segregation ain’t necessarily so,’” Pollitt recalled, his sign being a play on the title and lyrics of a song in Porgy and Bess. Two students who interfered with the protestors were arrested in response.
The picketers grew into an organized movement known as the “Citizens Committee for Open Movies.” Picketing continued for months, involving more than 200 politically active UNC students and professors, concerned church members, and other progressive townspeople.
Other protest tactics also took their toll. Pollitt explained, “You could pay the price of admission … and get your name in an ad urging them to change it. We would have five hundred names. And there wouldn’t be more than five people on a Saturday night when the second show started.”
Many women from the Black community provided vital sustaining power to the movement. Eva Clayton, the first Black woman to represent North Carolina in Congress, stated in her oral history interview that, while these women “might not have been actually demonstrating, they were there to be eyewitnesses if something happened to their kids, or to their neighbor’s kids. They were the ones who provided the food, the transportation, went to the rallies.”
The barriers begin to fall
In April of 1961, the Carolina’s district manager made a tiny concession, agreeing to allow admission by “passing the word along to individual [Blacks]” on his own timeline. It was August before two Black UNC students walked through the Carolina’s lobby door to see The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
By November, the Varsity lowered the color bar. Black UNC students would be admitted with an ID. Within two weeks, that limitation gave way and all Black townspeople were allowed to freely attend movies. There was widespread belief among the activists that the Carolina would soon follow the Varsity’s lead.
Smith, who had cannily opened the Hollywood Theater for the Black community back in 1939, closed it in 1961 as the pressure to desegregate escalated. At his Carolina Theater, there were slow, incremental steps in changing its admissions policy. First, Black UNC students were allowed. Next, the dates and families of those students could buy tickets. Then Black non-students were permitted to attend as guests of White patrons.
On February 17, 1962, the Citizens Committee for Open Movies voted to ask for full integration. It took until March 10, 1962—over a year since the first picketers had arrived—for the Carolina Theater to capitulate. While the Varsity and the Carolina were among the first movie theaters in the South to integrate, the years of admission denied had taken their toll.
As Fred Battle poignantly concluded in another oral history, “It left scars on me.”
Flash forward to June 2021. The Marian Cheek Jackson Center and the Chelsea Theater partnered to provide a first “Community Cinema” program for the Black community as a way to continue sharing and collecting their living history. Eighty years after they were shown at the old Hollywood Theater, Northside neighbors and others gathered once more to watch the two film reels from 1939, Movies of Local People that H. Lee Waters filmed in Chapel Hill.
Community elders helped identify faces and tell stories they knew from the past: the man who delivered ice blocks to homes by wagon, the girl standing to the left on the stairs, the street where the Standard Theater first operated.
While the lingering scars of segregation and widespread racism are evident in today’s Black Lives Matter movement, healing moments at the movies do happen. This time, tickets were free, and White staff members at the Chelsea offered an arm to help their Black neighbors take a seat safely in the dark.
This is the second of a two-part story on the history of segregated movie theaters and the Black moviegoing experience in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and surrounding areas. Part One, tracing the years of 1909-1941, can be read by clicking this link.
Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.