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Civil Rights at Carolina Theatre

This feature originally appeared as "A Time for Change" in the Winter 2014 edition of SHOWtime, the Official Magazine of The Carolina Theatre. It was written by Danny Adler and republished with the permission of Carolina Theatre. All photography is credited to The Herald-Sun.

No is a powerful word.

For those who enforced Jim Crow laws, "no" was a word that kept blacks separated from whites. Yet for the brave men and women who fought against oppressive segregation in the South, the word "no" was a rallying cry. In the 1950s and 1960s, blacks and sympathetic whites stood up to the harsh policies that told blacks where to sit, to eat, and to drink.

Taking "no" for an answer was no longer an option.

As the powerful winds of change swept through the country during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they also moved through Durham, including the Carolina Theatre.

While blacks were admitted into the Carolina Theatre, a structure built in the 1920s, they were forced to buy tickets at an entrance on the side of the building and made to climb 97 steps to a second balcony with a segregated seating area.

This era of the theater's history comes into focus with "Confronting Change," a permanent exhibit at the theater.

Board of Trustees Chairman Tim Alwran lauds Bob Nocek, who became president and chief executive officer of Carolina Theatre of Durham, Inc. in summer 2010, for pushing the idea of the exhibit.

"Bob Nocek had the great vision to turn empty walls of the theater into something of a living museum," Alwran said.

As board chairman at Carolina Theatre, Alwran tasked his friends Carol and Vera Whisenton to chair a committee to create the content and fundraise for the exhibit. Carl Whisenton was a protester during the civil rights movement era and a number of his former classmates from the all-black Hillside High School participated in the demonstrations at Carolina Theatre.

"I knew that we had to reach out to those who were directly involved in the movement and tell the story in an accurate and compelling manner," Alwran said.

Carl Whisenton was reluctant to participate at first, as were several of the other men and women who were once treated as second-class citizens within the theater.

"It brought back vivid memories," Carl Whisenton said. "The negative feelings had a chilling effect. We had to get past that."

Alwran said that when he visited the theater with some of the African Americans who were once discriminated against there, he could sense their anxiety. It was still very fresh for them, he said.

The Whisentons eventually decided they would join the project. The catch: "We were going to tell the story the way it really happened. We weren't going to sugarcoat it."

"We wanted to document what actually went on at that time. We want people to see it," Carl added.

A committee worked to collect information on the theater - and the civil rights protests around it - through interviews and by scouring public and university libraries, as well as newspaper archives. Others sent letters requesting donations to fund the project.

"The response was tremendous," Vera Whisenton said.

Nocek had a three-part vision for a living museum at the Carolina Theatre. The first part, "A Century Downtown," was completed in 2012; it looks at the artists and films to appear over the decades. "Restoring Hope" is a tribute to volunteers who saved the theater in the 1970s and 1980s. And finally, "Confronting Change" looks at how the civil rights movement changed the theater.

The installation appears in a lobby space just outside that second balcony where the black theater-goers had to sit. All the walls are covered in content with floor-to-ceiling photographs, a number of panels that outline the story, and video exhibits with protesters and public officials at the time.

Nocek said the exhibit showcases what the African-American community achieved in their hometown.

"A lot of the people we worked with in the African-American community are proud of what they accomplished," Nocek says. "They look back at how they rallied together. It took guts, and they showed up."

The exhibit aims to keep the theater's narrative alive.

"For us, we're in a city that has a lot of new people moving to town," Nocek said. "It was important for us to keep the story alive. We wanted people to understand why this place is so important to Durham. This is a place people are really passionate about."

As civil rights protests spread through the South, North Carolina lawyer Floyd B. McKissick Sr. and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began directing protests of segregation at the Carolina and other theaters in Durham. As a city-owned building, the Carolina used public funds, and McKissick and the NAACP would use that to protect its policy of segregation.

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president in January of 1961, protesters began demonstrating against segregation at the theaters. Demonstrators from black high schools and colleges marched peacefully with some white students from Duke and the University of North Carolina in frigid temperatures. In 1962, the mayor's Committee on Human Relations offered to help negotiate a deal, but theater management was unwilling to participate.

Soon after, protesters began "round robin" demonstrations. Blacks would line up behind the white ticket window to buy tickets. Once refused, they would go to the back of the line and start over again. While tension and intimidation by whites reportedly increased, there were also instances of whites buying tickets and turning them over to black protesters.

A Superior Court judge restrained the protests later that year.

In May of 1963, Wense Grabarek was sworn in as Durham's mayor. The Pennsylvania native played a pivotal role in creating talks that led to the integration of the Carolina Theatre and other public places in the city. The Carolina Theatre was desegregated in July of 1963, a year before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Whisentons and theater officials eagerly opened the exhibit in February 2014 in conjunction with Black History Month. The exhibit is meant to educate, to show how far the people, the theater, and the city itself have come. The exhibit is meant to honor those who fought for equality.

"We're hoping to bring the community together and heal the schism that we had," Carl Whisenton says. "This is a healing moment."

Vera agrees: "We applaud the Carolina Theatre for doing this."

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