Movie Theaters, the Urban North, and Policing the Color Line

Lafayette Theatre in 1936. (Federal Theatre Project/Wikimedia Commons)

While America’s urban areas witnessed a massive boom in the popularity of motion pictures and moviegoing in the early twentieth century, these same cities, like New York, Chicago, Atlantic City, and Philadelphia, consciously worked to maintain the rigidly segregated lines of white supremacy. As scholars Jacqueline Stewart, Cara Caddoo, and Allyson Nadia Field, have explained, major developments  in the motion picture industry occurred simultaneously with important transitions in African American cultural and social life. Indeed, as the movies became synonymous with urban living, Black migrants and immigrants made their way to these areas, swelling population numbers by the thousands in northern and midwestern cities. In tandem with these developments, local police forces and theater employees, sometimes working together, endeavored to maintain racial boundaries in neighborhood theaters and popular playhouses. Cinema—“as a place, a medium, and a set of practices”—quickly became an important avenue for staking claims to who had full access to the city and who was able to live their fullest lives uninhibited. Understanding this quite clearly from the medium’s inception, Black urbanites challenged limitations on their right to take part in this new means of placemaking, utilizing a range of tactics to engage with the medium and demand full access to the city.

In 1909, in the midst of a widespread nickelodeon boom, James Metcalfe, a cultural writer for Life magazine and newspapers nationwide, wrote rather explicitly about the ways that theater employees worked with police to keep their venues white. He laid out a clear set of instructions that worked to circumvent Black people’s civil rights to sit where they choose: an usher offers to move the Black patrons seated in the orchestra to better seats; upon arriving at these new seats, pre-placed stagehands pick a fight with the Black patrons, creating a disturbance and cause to call the police; offending parties are then removed from the theater and arrested. “The rest, of course,” Metcalfe ominously insisted, “is easy.”1 Throughout the early twentieth century, as police forces became increasingly professionalized the motion picture industry became a cultural staple, and Black migrants and immigrants moved en masse to growing cities, this scene played out time and time again in various forms.

In Manhattan two years later, the manager of the New York Theatre called the police on Mr. and Mrs. Roberts when they refused to leave the orchestra section for the balcony. Despite the fact that their tickets were for exactly where they were seated and the state’s civil rights laws were certainly on their side, the police officer threatened them with arrest if they did not move. In a similar case a few years later in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of a local pastor was forcibly ejected from a theater by a police officer because the management objected to his presence in the all-white establishment. When the pastor went to the mayor and police to complain about this blatantly obvious form of discrimination, the officer claimed ignorance of the law. He explained that he was simply unaware of what he could not do as an officer. In other cases, like in Philadelphia in 1929 and again in Muncie, Indiana in 1934, Metcalfe’s foil played out exactly as he planned. Patrons insisting on their rights, refusing to move from the purchased seats, were arrested for disorderly conduct right in the theater.

Police officers were not always needed in order to violently maintain illegal segregation. In 1925 Dr. Leon Headen of Chicago was badly beaten by multiple ushers when he refused to take a worse seat than his assigned ticket. While Dr. Headen was eventually awarded damages for the physical violence, the theater was decidedly not found guilty of discrimination. In quite a few cases, Black women were subject to force as theater employees attempted to maintain the color line in urban cities. In 1924, a Philadelphia theater manager screamed racial epithets at a young couple who he was trying to kick out of his theater. Next, he grabbed the young woman’s arm and forced her out. A ticket taker in Atlantic City, so committed to keeping a young Black woman out of the Royal Theatre in 1937, actually pulled her arm out of her socket, dislocating her shoulder.

Even without all of this—an arrest or violent altercation—the threat of a greater public spectacle was enough to keep some Black patrons from immediately insisting on their rights. In these cases, as Metcalfe prophesized, segregation and the maintenance of white supremacy was, indeed, “easy.” The charge of disorderly conduct was usually thrust upon Black patrons, while theater employees were often purposefully loud with those who they were trying to move to the balcony or remove altogether. Many victims simply wanted to avoid any further possibility of humiliation and embarrassment, choosing instead to exit the theater without a direct confrontation.

Still, there existed a varied tradition of protest against such abuses, deliberate moves that shifted shame from Black patrons to white people (theatre employees and officers) breaking the law. Many, like the young Roberts couple and Dr. Headen, for example, filed suit against offending theaters and employees and eventually won damages. Local activists, religious and political leaders, and members of NAACP branches met with theater managers, like in a Bayonne, New Jersey case, to convince them to end discrimination. They also educated Black residents by creating fliers on civil rights—encouraging people to “know the law—know their rights—and then stand up for them!”—and passing them out in churches.2 Other Black urbanites published letters to the editor in local Black newspapers, offering up both exposés of racist theater employees and calls-to-action for the Black community. Some even responded with force in kind. In one incident, a New York City college student fought back to defend himself when multiple theater employees laid their hands on him to keep him out of the orchestra.

The point was to keep segregation and discrimination from expanding in Northern and Midwestern urban areas, places once deemed havens from such obvious and insidious acts of Jim Crow. In Bayonne, activists cited theater segregation as “‘a breeding place’ for racial discrimination,” while a Black journalist for the St. Paul Echo explained that court victories against racist theater employees “will serve as a check to similar attempts in other enterprises.”3 The sincere hope was that these extensive protests against illegal discrimination, coupled also with those against racist cinema such as the Birth of a Nation and other films, would “check the Demon Color Prejudice” before it spread elsewhere.4

As much as this aspect of urban living was policed, Black urbanites refused to give in to Jim Crow North. They understood the importance of cinema’s linkages to other aspects of their lives in the city. Time and time again, Black journalists and activists warned of discrimination and segregation in movie theaters bleeding into more aspects of urban life—restaurants, other amusements, and even schools. Further, the ability to engage with cinema was seen as part and parcel with fully experiencing the big city. To delimit where and how Black urbanities could do this also placed rules (illegal, at that) on their very ability to move and choose their amusements freely. In the early twentieth century, therefore, cinema was a significant means of claiming space in many cities, of claiming the right to uncompromisingly belong—one that many Black urbanities sought to grapple with and experience.

  1. “Negroes in New York Theatres,” New York Age, November 18, 1909.
  2. “Bayonne Theatre Discrimination Brings Protest,” New York Age, July 13, 1929.
  3. “Bayonne Theatre,” “Comments by the Age Editors on Sayings of Other Editors,” New York Age, January 8, 1927.
  4. “Another Theatre Manager Fined,” New York Age, November 11, 1911.
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Alyssa Lopez

Alyssa Lopez is Assistant Professor of History at Providence College. Her current research examines the relationship between Black film culture and placemaking in New York City. She has written on Black girls’ moviegoing experiences in The Journal of African American History and her book, Reel Freedom: Black Film Culture in Early Twentieth Century New York City, is under contract with Temple University Press. She is also an associate editor at Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History.

Comments on “Movie Theaters, the Urban North, and Policing the Color Line

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    This article is a treasure for English instructors who teach Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game.” My students are shocked to learn that the audience surrounding the unnamed protagonist is probably not white due to northern segregation practices. And Ellison, in my interpretation, sort of implies that the protagonist might in fact be watching a “race movie,” rather than a Hollywood release. I expect this essay will become required contextual reading. Thank you!

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