Honoring those who broke barriers

Carolina Theatre kicks off ‘Confronting Change’ exhibit
May. 22, 2013 @ 08:31 PM

July will mark the 50th anniversary of the integration of the Carolina Theatre.

On Wednesday, the theater kicked off a fundraiser for an exhibit to be titled “Confronting Change” that will chronicle this chapter of Durham’s civil rights history.

Bob Nocek, president and CEO of the Carolina Theatre, said that when he arrived in Durham and learned that the venue had once been segregated, he was touched by the dedication of those whose protests led to desegregation.

“I knew that story had to be told in a permanent way,” Nocek said. The exhibit will represent “an important part of Durham’s history. I’ve been honored in the last few months to meet with some of the people who stood in those lines,” he said.

The audience that gathered in Cinema One got a preview of some of the research that the exhibit committee has put together so far. A slide show of photographs from the protests was projected onto the screen as various speakers presented the fundraiser. The audience also saw a brief video of interviews with some of the participants – among them former Mayor Wense Grabarek, Walter Jackson and others.

Carl Whisenton took part in the actions to integrate Woolworth’s, Howard Johnson and other facilities. In 1961, he was at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he took part in other actions. He and his wife Vera are co-chairing the committee that is doing the research and fund-raising for the exhibit. In August 2012, the committee began the work of raising money and getting information.

“We got things done, and it was all because of you,” said committee member Claudine Daye Lewis, who participated in the protests. In the process of doing the research, “We had to go back and get the real facts; make sure we captured history as it happened.”

The exhibit will be placed on the theater’s third floor balcony area, “where we all had to go” during segregation, Lewis said.

Until July 1963, African-Americans had to enter the theater from a separate entrance and sit in the upper balcony. With full integration, everyone could sit where they pleased.

“We don’t want this history to be lost,” Lewis said. “We don’t want our children and grandchildren to go through what we went through.”

Carl Whisenton recognized Grabarek and Walter Riley, who were in attendance. A young Riley, then a high school student, could be seen in one of the photos being projected on the screen. In the photo, Riley is sandwiched between a police officer and theater manager, and is looking up at the manager. Riley, who now lives in Oakland, Calif., just happened to be in Durham on Wednesday and heard about the event, he said.

“Confronting Change” will be the second of three exhibits that will tell the story of the Carolina Theatre. The first, “A Century Downtown,” chronicling the history of the building itself and the artists who have performed at the venue, was unveiled in fall 2011. A third exhibit “Restoring Hope,” will commemorate the volunteers who saved the theater from demolition.

So far, $12,575 has been raised for “Confronting Change,” said Treat Harvey, development officer for The Carolina Theatre. The goal is $50,000, she said.

“We want this piece of the museum to come alive,” said Tim Alwran, chairman of the Carolina Theatre board. “To not tell this story is to disrespect those who made it happen.”