‘Confronting Change’ examines civil rights history at Carolina Theatre

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 04:54 PM

Ninety-seven. That’s how many stairs African-American theater-goers had to walk up to see a movie at the Carolina Theatre in Durham before the civil rights movement changed it. Before it was desegregated in July 1963, African-Americans bought tickets and went in the side entrance to the only available seats for them – in the balcony.
Today, the side entrance is unmarked. The staircase is nicely carpeted in red with wooden rails, available for use but not as busy as the front entrance stairs and elevator. Now if you take the elevator up to the second balcony, the doors open to reveal a new, permanent exhibit at the Carolina Theatre. With black and white large photographic images and text, “Confronting Change” is on display in a lobby area next to the Donor Lounge.
PNC, which sponsored the exhibit, held an event Wednesday for those involved with the advisory committee for the theater’s project.
Carolina Theatre CEO and President Bob Nocek said “Confronting Change” is an exhibit so that “everyone who comes in this building knows what took place here.”
Committee chair Tim Alwran reached out to neighbors Vera and Carl Whisenton to get the exhibit going.
Carl Whisenton contacted several former classmates from Whitted Junior High and Hillside High schools, the African-American public schools before desegregation. Whisenton protested with others active in the civil rights movement at Kress, Woolworth’s and Howard Johnson’s.
“We did a lot of protesting back in the day,” Whisenton said during the PNC luncheon held in the Connie Moses Ballroom at the theater. “I didn’t participate in the Carolina Theatre [protests] but I do remember going up those steps to see a movie here.” He also remembers the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1960 visit to Durham, when he spoke at White Rock Baptist Church.
Everybody was there, Whisenton said. King “encouraged us to keep on and to march,” he said.
Vivian McCoy participated in the protests at the Carolina Theatre.
“We had Hayti,” she said, referring to the thriving African-American district of Durham in the 1950s and ’60s. “But this was a different theater,” she said, where on Sunday afternoons they climbed all those steps to the segregated balcony seating. They also threw popcorn, she said. And they protested day after day until they, too, were able to buy a ticket and sit where they pleased.
Not everyone protested or agreed with the protests. “Don’t think because we were black that all black people supported us,” McCoy said. She also talked about the regular protests at Royal Ice Cream in the 1950s, site of Durham’s first sit-in.
“I hope we don’t go back,” she said, “but what I see today in the United States is blatant racism.”
She thanked former Durham Mayor Wense Grabarek, who served from 1963 to 1971 and worked with different groups toward desegregating the city-owned theater and other public places.
“I’m glad it’s being memorialized. The Carolina Theatre represented the most obvious expression of segregation during that time,” Grabarek said later as he viewed the exhibit.
Walter Jackson, who also serves on the advisory committee, said he and others involved in the civil rights movement “stood up and tore down the walls of segregation.”
It took courage, he said, and taking risks of physical harm and economic reprisals.
Committee members took the elevator to the new exhibit. McCoy teared up as she looked at the images and words about “A Segregated America,” “Targeted for Change,” “Prolonged Protests” and “Integration Arrives.” A television plays a CBS report from the time period. Around a corner is the original box office window and railing for the separate entrance. The largest image in the exhibit is of Faye Mayo being refused service at the main box office in 1962.
Jackson said it’s a wonderful feeling to see the exhibit come to fruition after all the hard work of the committee members. It was a labor of love, he said. Most of them knew each other since high school.
Jackson, 68, described the original stairs as “not very nice, and that’s putting it mildly. The indignities inflicted on African-Americans at that time were almost mind boggling,” he said. “But we stuck together and it was worth it.”
He said it’s important for the younger generation to see what it was like, though he doesn’t think there can ever be enough in terms of understanding what it was like. It’s important to show it, Jackson said, and “to see people still around who participated in the wonderful civil rights movement.”
Seeing the exhibit didn’t make him emotional, he said.
“It was a period of life we needed to go through to get where we are today,” Jackson said.