Reel Segregation: The Revealing Racial History of Local Movie Theaters

UNC-Chapel Hill students crowd the ticket booth of the Pickwick Theatre on Franklin Street. Photo from 1916 Yackety Yack (UNC-CH student yearbook) via


By Diana Newton

It’s a long cinematic journey from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) to Black Panther (2018), from blackface to Black Power, onscreen. Where and when these and other films have played over the years—the movie theaters themselves—reveal not only changes in the film industry, but also a sharp lens on the evolution of race relations here in Orange County. It would take 53 years after the first movie theater opened locally until Whites and Blacks sit down together to watch a movie on Franklin Street.

On November 13, 1909, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) newspaper, The Tar Heel (now The Daily Tar Heel), announced that Chapel Hill’s first movie theater, the Pickwick Theatre, was about to open on Franklin Street. Of course, in those days moviegoing students were all White males because North Carolina conformed to the discriminatory laws and practices of the “Jim Crow” South, where most businesses operated along strictly segregated lines. The university itself had only a small number of women until the 1920s and admitted no Blacks until 1951.

By 1914, White working-class mill workers and their families in Carrboro could also enjoy going to “the picture show” at the new Colonial Theater, located right across from Durham Hosiery Mill Number 4 on what is now Weaver Street. Three years later, it became the Melba Movie Theater. Black Carrboro resident Flossie Mann Campbell could not buy a ticket, but she was allowed to work as a piano accompanist to the silent films shown at the Melba, before the arrival of talkies.

The Tar Heel Theater featured a “novel balcony,” but unlike other theaters, it was not originally intended for seating potential Black patrons. Photo from 1916 Yackety Yack (UNC-CH student yearbook) via

Once the Pickwick and the Colonial began attracting audiences, other cinemas for Whites began to compete for the local entertainment dollar. In an unusual business pairing on Franklin Street, the Tar Heel Garage and Theatre Company opened in 1916, touting its “modern improvements and a novel balcony,” although the balcony was not originally intended for seating potential Black patrons.

However, many larger movie theaters, such as The Carolina in Durham, were designed with balconies— known as the “buzzard’s roost”—specifically to segregate Blacks from Whites. Other theater owners built special partitions, maintained Blacks-only entrances, or allowed special late night showings, known as “midnight rambles,” to maintain racially separate viewing. UNC Professor Charlene Regester, who has extensively studied the Black moviegoing experience during the early 20th century, points out that all of these practices “connoted public humiliation.”

The films themselves had a powerful capacity to deepen or diminish widespread racist beliefs and stereotypes about Blacks. No film in cinematic history has been regarded as so explicitly racist as D.W. Griffith’s three-hour film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Set in the Civil War era, it portrayed Blacks as dangerous and degenerate and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as White saviors of the moral order.

Some hailed it as a technical “masterpiece” of filmmaking—its cinematic techniques were revolutionary for the time, setting new standards for the industry, making it still relevant for film history studies in post-graduate institutions. As noted in the Wikipedia page on the film, the realism of the action even triggered one viewer to shoot the screen in an attempt to save a female character in distress.

Yet, the content and narrative of the film put the racial divisions in this country on full display, including in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The still-young NAACP (formed in 1909), condemned its racist message and sought to have it banned from theaters. By contrast, in October of 1921, The Tar Heel announced that The Pickwick would be screening the film and described it as “superb.”

The film is regarded as having given a second life to the KKK, enabling it to seize on anti-immigrant sentiment of the time in addition to racist views toward Blacks.

The Black community enjoys its own movie theaters

But Black culture answered back decisively. As the film historian of Black Hollywood, Tony Brown, asserts, “In the battle to rescue the Black image from opportunistic white filmmakers, who played on the old world southern stereotypes, the Black community retaliated by creating Black production companies, Black theaters, and loyal Black audiences.” 

Former location of the Standard Theater, on the left in the background. Photo captured from Movies of Local People, Reel 2, H. Lee Waters Film Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Locally, this energized response to racism gave birth in 1924 to the Standard Theater. After 15 years, the first movie theater specifically for Blacks in Chapel Hill opened at 601 West Franklin Street. The Standard was owned and operated by Black entrepreneur Durwood O’Kelly and two other Black business partners. The theater was also used for social events, monthly dances, and on occasional Sundays for church services by congregations that did not yet have their own building.

The Carolina was Chapel Hill’s first chain movie theater (1927). Photo from 1928 Yackety Yack (UNC-CH student yearbook) via

In 1927, the Carolina Theater opened for Whites on Franklin Street as part of the burgeoning national theater chain known as the Publix Theater Corporation, an affiliate of Hollywood’s Paramount Studios. It was the most upscale cinema to date, featuring a pipe organ and seating capacity of 703.

But during these early years, competition, theater fires, the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918,  and the Great Depression of the 1930s all took their toll on the economic viability of both White and Black theaters locally. By 1939, the Tar Heel, the Melba and the Standard had all closed.

The Hollywood Theatre in Carrboro opened for Black audiences in May 1940. Photo by Jack Delano via the Library of Congress.

Even so, the White manager of the Carolina Theater, E. Carrington Smith, clearly recognized the ongoing business opportunity that local cinemas presented. In 1939, he opened the Hollywood Theater for Blacks in Carrboro. Smith was right: The Hollywood attracted 1300-1500 Black moviegoers weekly, including children.

In the oral history captured by the From the Rock Wall project, hosted by the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, local resident Doug Clark, Sr., remembers that in his childhood, “All Black kids … on Friday nights mainly, you could go to the movies. You didn’t want to get no punishment or you couldn’t go … They had chapter pictures (serials) that all the kids wanted to go to called Shamble and Tarzan.”

Gone With the Wind screens for Black moviegoers at the Hollywood Theater. Photo captured from Movies of Local People, Reel 2, H. Lee Waters Film Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

The Hollywood mostly showed popular Hollywood films of the day, and when available, “race films”—those produced for Black audiences and featuring Black casts. But race films were harder to come by because distribution was quite limited compared to Hollywood films. Notably, a program of films featured at the Hollywood in December 1940 highlights Willie Best, a famous Black actor, rather than Bob Hope, as the draw to see The Ghost Breakers.

In 1939 and again in 1941, the Hollywood had the unique opportunity to screen documentary footage of Chapel Hill’s own Black community to its patrons before the evening’s features. Movies of Local People had been assembled by North Carolina photographer H. Lee Waters, who traveled across the state filming small communities from 1936-1942. Waters captured scenes of everyday life by setting up his equipment at gathering points like main intersections, schools and downtowns.

The power of Black people literally seeing themselves onscreen in a space specifically dedicated to their own community cannot be underestimated.  Renowned Southern author Walker Percy, who attended UNC-Chapel Hill, speaks to this experience in his novel, The Moviegoer. He writes: If a person “sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”

For those brief evenings, amidst ongoing years of segregated life in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, the Black community was indeed Somewhere—at the Hollywood Theater, watching movies of their own lives.

This article is the first of a two-part story. Part One traces the years of segregated moviegoing from 1909-1941, and Part Two, coming soon, will cover from that time to the protests that led to the integration of local movie theaters in 1962.

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.

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1 Comment on "Reel Segregation: The Revealing Racial History of Local Movie Theaters"

  1. Charles Humble | March 4, 2023 at 2:19 pm | Reply

    Always good to learn about our path to where we are today. Many thanks for this article. Can’t wait for part 2.

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