DURHAM Step off the elevator at the Carolina Theatre’s third floor, step into 1963.
To one side there’s a wall-size mural of civil-rights demonstrators, lined up to be turned away from the segregated theater’s box office.
Around the walls, texts that tell it like it was back then, in the Jim Crow days in Durham. In a hallway, there is a vintage ticket window: the one reserved for “Negro” patrons, and just steps away the balcony where those patrons were required to sit.
“Before every performance downstairs, people should be invited up to see this,” said choreographer Chuck Davis.
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Davis, founder of Durham’s African-American Dance Ensemble, was among those on hand for a preview last week of “Confronting Change” – one of three permanent historical installation planned for the 1926 auditorium.
Those installations, said Carolina CEO Bob Nocek, are intended to “help people understand why the Carolina Theatre is important. ... what it’s meant to Durham,” and its place in Durham’s civil-rights era is one of the theater’s most important milestones.
“Confronting Change” lays out the drive to integrate the Carolina Theatre, from early 1961 to mid-1963. It’s shown in the context of a national movement, but the exhibit is really about Durham and how the city came to change itself.
“This was a very segregated city, with a very segregated administration,” said Vivian McCoy, who helped organize the exhibit along with others who had bought movie tickets at the “Negro” window, walked up 97 stairs to the balcony from the old side door for “colored” – and who stood and marched outside to make a change.
“The community just really wanted to have this story told,” said Vera Whisenton, who headed the exhibit committee with her husband, Carl Whisenton.
The Carolina Theatre was a particularly galling symbol of segregation because the city owns the building, said McCoy. Protests started there Jan. 21, 1961 – the day John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president – and continued, on the street and in court, until all Durham’s movie-theater managers agreed to integrate in July 1963.
Movies were not the only Durham facilities to integrate that summer, a transition remarkable at the time for being peaceful. Weeks earlier, a CBS news program showed Durham’s approach to desegregation as a counterpoint to the violence going on at the same time in Birmingam, where civil-rights protestors were being met with fire hoses and police dogs. A video of that program is part of “Confronting Change.”
“Durham, North Carolina was a leader in those efforts,” said Walter Jackson, who was among the Carolina demonstrators. “We marched, we protested, we sat in ... we tore down the walls of segregation.”
McCoy and Jackson gave a lot of credit for Durham’s integration to then-Mayor Wense Grabarek, who brought black activists and white business people to work together almost from the day he was elected.
“You walked into hell,” McCoy told Grabarek during the preview get-together. For his part, Grabarek was pleased with what he saw.
“It’s a wonderful thing to memorialize,” he said. “To me, the Carolina Theatre represented such an obvious expression of segregation. “The separate entrance, the series of rickety stairs leading up to the upper balcony ... it was something each citizen of Durham could look at every day.”
“To remember that, to mark it as historic, is probably well to do, and let future generations have some sense of what segregation was really like.”
The exhibit is open, but not finished, Nocek said. An image of the old stairway as it was is still to come – volunteers working on the exhibit “have told us over and over that’s what stands out to them,” he said. It will go in a hallway near the old ticket window, along with profiles of some of the demonstrators and, maybe, videos of them telling their stories of those days.
“This needed to be done,” said developer Carl Webb, whose parents and older siblings were among Durham’s activists in the 1950s and early 60s. The Carolina’s segregation remains a bitter memory for many people, some of whom “will still not come to an event at the Carolina Theatre,” Webb said.
The exhibit, he said, is “a beginning of mending fences.”