by Regina Longo
from Film Quarterly Spring 2015, Volume 68, Number 3
When I interviewed Cara Caddoo for this column, we talked about the current state of racial politics in the United States. Despite the long road ahead and the critical, collective work that must be done to achieve equality, historians like Cara Caddoo are bringing to the surface narratives that will become part of a larger conversation of the history of race and media in the US.
According to an old adage, “there are no coincidences.” It is thus significant that the opening pages of Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life begin with a vignette about the 1895 earthquake in New Madrid, Missouri. Caddoo paints a picture of “violent undulations” from the earth’s very core that she posits as akin to “the tectonic shifts occurring along the fault lines of the nation’s racial order that would disperse hundreds of thousands of people, remake entire city skylines, and transform America as a whole” (2). At a distance of 120 years, rumblings from (Ferguson) Missouri to Staten Island, New York, have once again shaken up American society.
Caddoo’s introduction notes that Thomas Edison would premiere his Vitascope machine in New York City just one year later, in 1896. This invention allowed large-scale projections of motion pictures in large auditoriums, rather than the individual peephole machines first promoted by Edison and other motion picture pioneers. The coming of the collective viewing experience permanently altered the shape of motion picture production, distribution, and reception. As it happens, another historic event occurred in the United States on that same day that Edison was introducing his new “gadget” in New York: the Supreme Court first heard the case of Plessy v. Ferguson and would soon uphold a racist set of laws enacted throughout the American South since the end of Reconstruction, rendering “separate but equal” constitutional.
Caddoo’s groundbreaking work examines early black film exhibition, distribution, and production practices during the time of Jim Crow and mass migration as well as the pioneering role of African Americans as moviegoers and movie-makers. She demonstrates that, despite dramatic changes to the way black Americans imagined and experienced their own racial identities at the turn of the twentieth century, the advent of the motion picture at a moment of drastic legal, spatial, and institutional changes to American society would forever alter the institutional structures of black life in America, and the media representations of black Americans.
Caddoo’s thorough research challenges the reader to think beyond the confines of commercial and theatrical exhibition practices, and more importantly, beyond the narrative of “race films” that were produced by black Americans beginning in 1915 in response to derogatory depictions of blacks in “white” American cinema. By beginning her study earlier, in the late 1890s, and focusing on the variety of nontheatrical venues where black audiences were experiencing all manner of early cinema, what emerges is a much fuller picture of the role of black cultural and religious institutions in creating parallel viewing spaces and distribution networks for black film exhibitors. Caddoo’s research demonstrates that black leaders and black audiences did not suddenly become conscious of racial mischaracterizations in American cinema with the release of films like The Johnson–Jeffries Fight (1910).
Cara Caddoo is doing the important work of bringing to bear the actual accounts and records of turn-of-the-century black American history, reminding today’s readers that beyond the standard narratives that scholars and conventional wisdom have come to accept and perpetuate, there was a long-thriving world of black cinema and culture that engaged with and challenged the dominant film culture.
Regina Longo: A key intervention of your book is its focus on early black film exhibition practices—rather than early black production or reception histories. Can you describe how your methodological approach, as a cultural historian and Americanist, shapes your work?
Cara Caddoo: Chapter 1 of Envisioning Freedom opens with a film exhibition at a black church in Kansas City, Missouri, on January 2, 1897. This is a time and place that falls outside of most other studies of early black cinema. There’s a lot of incredible work on black filmgoing and spectatorship in regard to commercial theatrical venues, but black institutions like the church, the lodge, and the school haven’t received much attention, especially during this historical moment. When we look at these venues, we’re confronted with a breathtakingly rich history of black film practices that pre-date the nickelodeon era by almost a decade. Reframing the history of American cinema to include this early black cinema culture sheds light on later events, including the responses of black Americans to films like The Birth of a Nation and the emergence of the race film industry.
My work draws from several disciplines, including Cinema Studies, Literature, American Studies, and Geography, but I was trained as an historian, and I’m deeply invested in archival research. When I began my book, I wanted to understand how black cinema developed through time and across geographic space, and how, for example, the incredible work on black filmgoing in cities like Durham, North Carolina, Washington DC, and Lexington, Kentucky, fit into the broader history.1 Envisioning Freedom considers sociological studies, Sanborn maps, church directories, industry guidebooks, railroad timetables, religious publications, railway maps, census records, and—most extensively—black newspapers. Digital Harlem‘s website and Going to the Show, which maps filmgoing in North Carolina during the silent era, inspired me to create a “Black Film Venue” database, which includes thousands of records from my research on black film exhibitions, exhibition venues, and colored theaters. The database has helped me identify, for example, the routes of itinerant film exhibitors and the locations of colored theaters. It’s also made it possible to use GIS mapping software to see where these film exhibitors and venues were located in relation to centers of black urban migration and the railways.
I should also note that, like other scholars of early black cinema, I write about films that are largely nonextant. Of course, even when individual prints of black films survive, we have to consider other sources in order to understand how they were integrated into specific cultural practices, economies, and institutions. Scholars of early black film are very aware of this fact, which I believe has contributed to the innovative methodological and archival work being done in the field right now—for example, Matthew Bernstein and Dana White’s intertextual research, Allyson Field’s theorization in regard to the archive, and Jacqueline Stewart’s attention to film as a material object. The Regeneration Conference on Early Black Film, which the Black Film Center/Archive organized last year, was a testament to this fact. It’s an exciting time to be doing research on this subject.2
Longo: Inevitably, a study of the work of Oscar Micheaux must figure into any discussion of early black film, in the United States and abroad. What I found extremely interesting about Chapter 7, “Race Films and the Transnational Frontier,” is that many parallels could be drawn to practices that continued through the 1950s of black American films and filmmakers seeking audiences and sympathies abroad. Do you see the earlier work of Micheaux as pivotal in this regard?
Caddoo: Oscar Micheaux was an exceptional individual, but once he’s situated in the longer history of black film, some of his idiosyncrasies and ambitions start to make more sense. By the time he directed The Homesteader (1919), black men and women had been producing and exhibiting motion pictures for black audiences for decades. The market, venues of exhibition, and leisure sensibilities that arose from this history produced the circumstances that made Micheaux’s career as a race filmmaker possible. This isn’t to say that these factors guaranteed his success. Rather, they opened up a window of possibility for his extraordinary creativity, drive, and resourcefulness. For this reason, I don’t find Micheaux’s dreams of exporting his films abroad as far-fetched as some other film historians. The transnationalism of early black cinema dates back to the first generation of itinerant black film exhibitors who circulated between the US, Mexico, Canada, and Cuba, and produced films for black audiences on subjects like the “American Negro and the Negro abroad.”3 Like his predecessors, Micheaux’s aspirations for his films weren’t limited to the boundaries of the US.
In my next book, I’ll spend more time attempting to trace the circuits of mass media, institutional networks, and economic relations that contributed to the emergence of what might be seen as a transnational black politics and aesthetics regarding the motion pictures in the later twentieth century. But right now, I’m hesitant to assume too many direct connections between the institutions and individuals I look at in Envisioning Freedom and the ideas and movements that appeared in the decades after WWII. The Cold War altered, in so many ways, the interactions and cultural exchange between black Americans and the broader diaspora.
Longo: Also inevitable in any discussion of depictions of race in early American cinema is a discussion of The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915). While this is not a black film production, and therefore not the focus of your study, you do engage with its reception in black communities and beyond. Can you discuss how you position this discussion?
Caddoo: I’ve been fascinated with the campaigns against The Birth of a Nation for years, ever since I first read Thomas Cripps’s groundbreaking book, Slow Fade to Black.4 Subsequent cinema scholars and historians have written extensively about the protests, but one question continued to haunt me: in an era of Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and widespread exploitation, why did thousands of African Americans invest their time and money in protesting a movie? Between 1915 and 1917, these protests unfolded across nearly sixty cities in the United States, the Canal Zone, and Canada. I knew that middle-class black Americans had long protested “unfair” visual depictions of the race, but what to make of these diverse protesters: railroad porters, housewives, domestic workers, ministers, gangsters, janitors, and schoolchildren? What factors, I wondered, brought together so many people with vastly different political ideologies, views of commercial leisure, and ideas regarding racial representation on-screen?
As I began to research these campaigns, this question became central to my research. I knew that I would have to consider an earlier era to begin to understand how this happened, and this is how I ended up in the 1890s, trying to identify some of the earliest responses of black Americans to the new technology of motion pictures. Once I grasped the extent of the earlier history of black cinema, I realized that the protesters weren’t reacting to a terrible medium they had been excluded from. African Americans were attempting to reclaim a form of popular culture that they helped to create, and which they had invested in materially, institutionally, and spiritually.
Longo: What you are able to do by shifting your focus to the actual cultural practices that were enacted by early black film (such as fight pictures and race films) is exceptional. Your work forms such an important complement to the work of earlier film historians researching the intersections of cinema and modernity that I wonder whether you’ve been engaged in any critical dialogues in this area?
Caddoo: I approach the question of modernity from many angles. History has traditionally associated modernity with the emergence of the nation-state, individualism, capitalism, rational progress, and the shift from the sacred to the secular. Clearly, some aspects of black film history emerged from—and contributed to—modernity in this sense. But early black cinema is also inseparable from the church. Envisioning Freedom builds on the work of scholars of African American and black diasporic history that have challenged the liberal, Western definitions of modernity. Black churches were modern institutions, organized in the name of racial progress. In fact, many of the black religious institutions and practices that I write about barely existed before the Civil War.
I’m also indebted to work that you’ve mentioned by Cinema Studies scholars on modernity, especially Tom Gunning, Leo Charney, Vanessa Schwartz, and Lynne Kirby. Thinking about cinema in regard to modern technologies, and conceptions of space and time, has helped me understand how and why moving pictures became so important to turn-of-the-century black life. The railroads, in particular, brought black migrants and motion pictures together—physically in new cities of settlement, figuratively in terms of common aesthetic sensibilities, and conceptually through the circulation of ideas and capital that produced a shared geographic imaginary. The traveling shows that combined moving pictures of disasters—fires, earthquakes, and sinking ships—with images of black leaders is an especially vivid example of the way black film exhibitions mediated the traumas of modern life by situating blackness as a visual marker of modern advancement.
1. Douglas Gomery, “The Two Public Spaces of a Moviegoing Capital: Race and the History of Film Exhibition in Washington, D.C.,” Spectator 18, no. 2 (1998): 8–17; Charlene Regester, “From the Buzzard’s Roost: Black Movie-Going in Durham and Other North Carolina Cities during the Early Period of American Cinema,” Film History 17, no. 1 (2005): 113–24. Also see Gregory A. Waller, Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896–1930 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
2. For more information on the conference see www.indiana.edu/~cahi/events/regeneration-in-digital-contexts-early-black-film-conference/.
3. Washington Bee, September 7, 1907, p. 5.
4. Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life
Harvard University Press, 2014
$35.00 cloth, 304 pages
The itinerant exhibitors with the closest connections to the black press, especially those who served as agents, had some of the farthest-reaching circuits of exhibition. The routes of William Bettis and Professor H. C. Conley included Mexico, and C. E. Hawk regularly visited Cuba with his famous “Electrical Display of Life Motion Pictures.” When Hawk announced he was “en route to Cuba our fourth time, where success awaits our arrival,” he did not indicate his distribution plans, but the national and international circulation of U.S. black newspapers might be attributed to some of these cosmopolitan individuals.
As black migrants flowed into cities in the 1890s, leisure became a critical site for black cultural and social formation. African Americans jealously guarded the moments of their days that were unfettered by the demands of employers or the unending obligations of manual and domestic labor. Organized strikes by black workers in Apalachicola, Florida, in 1890 and by black and white laborers in New Orleans in 1892 supported explicit demands for higher wages and shorter hours. Nevertheless, most black men and women negotiated their freedom in their everyday interactions. They quit, slowed down, bargained, and “borrowed” to make ends meet. And they sought leisure activities which enabled them to give meaning to their lives as autonomous human beings and free people.
For black reformers, the dreams and desires of these leisure-hungry migrants were both a boon and a burden. With thousands of potential new members, black church and club leaders hoped to strengthen their institutions and ultimately achieve their goals of collective racial progress. At the same time, the middle class feared that misdirected poor black migrants would be a liability to the entire race. While desperately seeking ways to divert their working-class counterparts from “iniquitous” amusements that were “the particular property of the devil” and the “diversions of Satan,” black reformers and church leaders were ecstatic to discover that their moving picture exhibitions drew crowds to their doors. Although some white American showmen assumed that “moving pictures do not appeal to the masses of negroes,” others knew better; it was “here,” in the black church, that the “moving picture is seen,” white sociologist W. D. Weatherford wrote in his 1910 study, Negro Life in the South. The promotion of this “intellectual, amusing and Christian entertainment” grew as uplift reformers fought to maintain their precarious status amid the incursions of Jim Crow and the allure of commercial enjoyments. But as moving picture exhibitions rose in popularity, both the exhibitors and the content of many exhibitions began to change. The increasingly sensational nature of the films reflected the demands of the black public as church leaders and traveling exhibitors conjured up new ways to attract crowds and earn profits from the ever-growing market of black filmgoers.
Cinema evolved as African Americans confronted the ever-changing landscape of modern American life. The malevolence of Jim Crow segregation, the exploitation of wage labor, the threat of violence, violence itself, the comfort of companionship, the meaning of laughter, the thrill of something new—it was in response to, and in spite of, these aspects of modern black life that the moving pictures grew in popularity, and with them, a black leisure culture that served as an emblem of the investment black people made to their lives and their futures as free people. Implicit in these developments was a new social imaginary, a new way that black people conceived of their relationships to one another. A largely working-class audience of filmgoers not only expressed their leisure demands by selectively patronizing amusements in black churches and halls, they also articulated themselves as a public, which in turn galvanized the growth of a black amusement industry, its performers, and a professional class of showmen and -women. Less than a decade after the first black church exhibition, cinema was already a vivid illustration of the intertwined history of black businesses, institutions, and media during the “nadir.” But this was only the beginning of a much longer story; over the subsequent half-century, even more seemingly disparate aspects of black life would converge in the malleable and ever-changing practices of black cinema culture.
Growing up, Tish Hubbard may have looked past the fields of her father’s farm in Sangamon County, Illinois, and wondered where her future would take her. Born into an educated, property-owning family, she could entertain a broader horizon of possibilities than most black women of her generation. The popular young socialite might have married a minister or a wealthy shopkeeper; she could have become a colored women’s club leader in nearby Indianapolis, or a schoolteacher in Chicago. But Tish ventured down another path. In 1907, she married Eddie D. Lee, a well-known vaudevillian, and entered the fast-paced world of show business. Soon, she was writing and performing in her husband’s vaudeville troupe. Her wicked sense of humor and uncanny impersonations charmed black critics and audiences alike, making the statuesque twenty-three-year-old a respected actress and renowned playwright by the time she and Eddie arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1908 to open the city’s first colored moving picture and vaudeville theater.
The Lees’ Thirteenth Street Theater signaled a new era of black moving picture exhibition and commercial entertainment. Previously shown under the auspices of churches, halls, and schools, motion pictures for black audiences began appearing in theaters around 1906. These venues not only featured motion pictures but also vaudeville performances and musical acts. Only a handful of similar sites, such as the African Grove Theatre, which briefly staged plays such as Othello in antebellum New York City, offered a precedent for the new industry. As Tuskegee Institute’s Negro Year Book explained in 1912, “there was hardly a theatre for colored people in the entire United States” before the turn of the twentieth century. Once inaugurated, however, the colored theater industry made impressive gains. In Louisville, a series of black-owned and black-managed theatrical enterprises followed the Lees’, including the Lincoln and the Taft in 1909, the Lyre (later Lyric) and the Houston in 1910, the Garden and the Evanston in 1911, and the Walnut Park, the Olio, and the Ruby in 1912.
These theaters emerged at a moment business historian Juliet E. K. Walker has referred to as the “golden age” of black entrepreneurship. A proliferation of black businesses—insurance agencies, barbershops, beauty companies, grocery stores, shipping lines, funeral parlors, banks, and newspapers—created and reinforced black community bonds and a belief in collective racial destiny.6 Black-owned and black-operated theaters performed these functions, but they also presented black city dwellers with unique opportunities for interaction with one another. Situated at the nexus of black social, economic, and cultural life, they brought African Americans together across class and gender lines into common spaces that were constructed for the purpose of social interaction and pleasure. As both a physical location and an arena of the black cultural and economic exchange, the colored theater became an especially critical site in the black public’s ongoing negotiations over the meaning of race progress.
More than two hundred black-owned and black-managed colored theaters opened in the United States between 1906 and 1914. They took on all shapes and sizes, from brick playhouses with marble interiors, to rickety storefronts, to seasonal open-air pavilions. These new businesses owed much to the churches and lodges that had pioneered black film exhibition by fostering a skilled class of motion picture professionals and cultivating the market for black cinema. Indeed, black film exhibitors in commercial venues continued to rely upon these institutions. It was far from coincidence that colored theaters first appeared in the established centers of black cinema across the urban South and West. At the same time, however, the industry expanded in new directions. Colored theater proprietors, including a wealthier class of black investors, considered shifting patterns of migration and the changing local climate for black entrepreneurs when deciding where to establish their businesses. Would-be theater owners were particularly eager to open their establishments in black “boom” towns, places where colored theaters served as literal investments in the future prosperity of the black population. Locals eagerly awaited these amusement venues, which expanded their leisure opportunities and indicated the cultural and material advancement of their communities.
Cinema not only moved across the pathways of black migration, it also traveled between the spheres defined by tradition and by law as private and public, commercial and noncommercial, and sacred and secular. Indeed, it was this very mutability that enabled cinema to flourish in black life at a moment when African Americans had limited access to both public space and the consumer marketplace. Black audiences first encountered “public amusements” like the moving picture exhibition in private institutions, which served as proxy public spaces in black life. Within these institutions emerged a vibrant for-profit film exhibition industry. When these businesses moved into commercial spaces—colored theaters—they remained dependent on the sacred black church and the private black lodge. “Public accommodations,” which were legally defined as facilities “open to common use,” segregated and excluded black patrons. At the same time, local and federal laws restricted the commercial activities of black people by preferentially granting licenses, tax breaks, and lucrative incentives such as land grants to white business owners. African Americans were commonly denied permits or were prohibited leases by white landowners. Those charged with minor infractions of the law (often fabricated) were frequently forced to close their businesses. In other cases, mob violence punished the successes of black business owners. As Ida B. Wells explained in Southern Horrors, the lynching of three prosperous African American grocers near Memphis, Tennessee, served as a “lesson of subordination.” These factors shaped the development of black cinema in the “private” spaces of black institutions and the “public” sites of commercial enterprise.
Racial segregation and cinema swept into the twentieth century on the same currents of modern change—migration, urbanization, and the rise of industrial capitalism—but the creation of a segregated mass leisure culture was far from a clear-cut process. Although America’s racial order and Jim Crow segregation ensured that cinema would cater to black and white audiences separately, nothing guaranteed that either group would have sustained interest in the medium. In fact, after the novelty of film projection faded, white theatrical film exhibition practices began to stagnate at the turn of the century. Vaudeville theaters, among the most common sites for commercial film exhibition, relegated the moving pictures to the bottom of their programs. Film historians have described these first few years of the 1900s as the “chaser era.” Vaudeville theaters offering “continuous” entertainment programs used moving pictures as “chasers,” which signaled the audience to clear the theater. Although the term “chaser” was not always used as a pejorative—a spectacular moving picture might offer a thrilling end to a vaudeville bill—these practices did not bode well for the medium’s appeal as a feature attraction. Even less auspicious for white film exhibition, motion picture–only venues, such as storefront theaters, rarely survived for more than a few months before closing down.
Meanwhile, black cinema practices developed along another path. Even as white film exhibition dwindled, reports of black church, lodge, and school exhibitions continued to climb. Black showmen and -women responded very differently to the fading novelty of motion pictures. Instead of withdrawing or pushing the medium to the end of their programs—as was the case with white commercial amusements—black itinerants threw their resources into enhancing their film exhibitions with more spectacular subjects, up-to-date technologies, and creative methods of exhibiting their motion pictures. They devised tantalizing narratives and integrated music and lectures into their programs. A well-designed film exhibition and a few key performers (often a sibling or a spouse) were far cheaper and easier to take on the road than a big vaudeville troupe. Most importantly, these shows appealed to the demands of the black public. Aided by the institutional needs and resources of black institutions, itinerant showmen and -women continued to enjoy a thriving market for their entertainments.
In fact, white exhibition was arguably technically and narratively less innovative, on the whole, than black film practices during the chaser period. Locked to a stationary site, white theaters and film exhibition services (the local distribution branches of motion picture production companies) appealed to the same customers week after week. For example, vaudeville houses were organized around the model of “continuous entertainments” and had to constantly update their repertoire. Thus, unlike the touring film professional, the locally based projectionist had very little time to devise and rework a film program. A few white traveling film exhibitors such as Lyman Howe created sophisticated motion picture shows by arranging various nonnarrative films, the “cinema of attractions,” into story lines. But by 1900, most motion pictures for white audiences screened in all white or segregated theaters and were conducted by local exhibition services. The use of motion pictures as chasers in these venues further indicates that white theater projectionists rarely integrated the medium into intricate, labor-intensive (thus more expensive) feature acts or story lines. Cheap, nonlinear acts were selected to end vaudeville programs, which urged the audience to gradually transition into and out of the theater.
In contrast, most black film exhibitors during this time were itinerants. These individuals presented the same films seasonally or annually, which supported their ability to integrate the moving pictures into their performances with greater sophistication. This also enabled them to create more elaborate programs over time, adding or subtracting elements based on the responses of local audiences. Additionally itinerant black film exhibitors honed their skills by repurposing films by white production companies. Integrating such films into stories and messages specific to the mission of racial progress likely required careful planning and sophisticated technical know-how. Th e white filmmakers whose pictures appeared in The Devil’s Cook Kitchen undoubtedly would have been astounded to see their work illustrating H. Charles Pope’s exhibition about racial uplift. William Hynes’s programs, which combined white- and black-produced films, may have employed advanced editing techniques. The most popular film exhibitors such as M. Posey, Arthur Laidler Macbeth, and Harry Wallace—“one of the best moving picture machine operators in the business”—earned widespread admiration for their considerable abilities as film projectionists. Touring and the mission of racial progress, in essence, encouraged black film exhibitors to invest more resources into refining their film programs. When a local audience tired of the repertoire, black exhibitors moved on to their next stop. These practices were far from mimetic of the white fi lm industry. Black people were drawn to motion picture shows in black institutions not only because they were excluded from other venues but also because of the vibrancy of black cinema culture.
By 1906, however, the tide began to turn for theatrical exhibition, reconfiguring both black and white filmgoing. For the first time, stand-alone motion picture theaters became a viable investment. Film exchanges were established, which provided theater proprietors a more affordable means of obtaining motion pictures. Previously, film production companies required theaters either to purchase their reels of film or to hire the services of a local film exhibition service. The film exchange inaugurated a rental- based system of distribution, which made acquiring films easier and often more affordable. Additionally, the creation of longer, multiple-reel moving pictures and the growing popularity of narrative film made it possible to feature movies with fewer accompanying live acts. These changes renewed the interest of white Americans in the medium, swelling the market for moving pictures and new commercial venues of exhibition. The cheap neighborhood theaters known as nickelodeons rose to meet this demand. Millions of white laborers and immigrants flooded into these storefront theaters, transforming the moving picture theater into a successful business. While moving pictures continued to appear in other sites, the nickelodeon became the primary venue for white filmgoers.
The nickelodeon crystallized the racial divide in American cinema and popular culture. A host of Jim Crow policies and practices came into alignment, some of which appeared only remotely related to commercial amusements. The racial segregation of public education, for example, worked in tandem with discriminatory housing policies to reconfigure the racial geography of America’s cities. Black and white families moved closer to their children’s schools, real estate developers and white property owners refused to sell or rent to black residents, and the limited economic opportunities of black tenants constrained them to poorer neighborhoods. Although the role of the government in encouraging residential segregation was especially visible in the Jim Crow South (where slavery had once reinforced the custom of residential mixing), racial segregation was also a northern phenomenon. When these national developments converged, the repercussions of Plessy v. Ferguson and the earlier Slaughter house and Civil Rights cases in the 1870s and 1880s (which effectively refashioned the constitutional rights of black citizens into new protections for American businesses) were fully unleashed upon the American film exhibition industry.
The cheap neighborhood moving picture theater was built into a landscape reconfigured by Jim Crow. Th e Motion Picture Handbook referred to this racially ordered urban geography when it described the “ideal location” for a motion picture house in 1910. The “first and most important consideration” for prospective theater owners should be location, F. H. Richardson’s popular guide for industry professionals explained: “Any considerable number of negroes will queer a house with all other races; and there are other races to which you must cater exclusively or not at all, so that the matter deserves close investigation when seeking a city nickel theater site.” By describing black audiences as alienating to all other groups and suggesting that prospective proprietors open theaters in racially homogenous neighborhoods, the manual’s prescribed business practices not only were constructed around an already racialized built environment, they added another layer to it. Working in conjunction with Jim Crow legislation, white theater owners made the segregated motion picture theater an industry-wide standard. Throughout the South, black Americans were legally required to sit in segregated seats in the “buzzard’s roost” or “nigger’s heaven,” located in theaters’ balconies, or to attend off-hour screenings of films. Residential zoning laws, instituted in the South during the 1910s, would further entrench Jim Crow. In the North, white theater proprietors adopted the policies of discriminatory seating, asserting they had no other choice. One Ohio theater manager, “compelled by public prejudice to reserve a part of the house for white people,” argued that he was “more deserving of pity than censure” because economic survival, not racism, dictated his seating practices.
The policies and practices of the North and South were mutually reinforcing. To justify their legal system of Jim Crow segregation, white southerners pointed to the “Unofficial ‘Jim Crow’ Laws” of northern theaters. In places such as Massachusetts, the “fountainhead of abolition and the defender of equal rights for the black man,” southern reporters smugly announced, white locals were gradually “drifting toward the ‘color line.’ ” Th e Montgomery Advertiser reprinted an article from the Chicago Tribune describing the widespread discrimination faced by black residents of that supposedly progressive city. By employing “underhanded and indirect methods,” white theaters in the North achieved the same ends as the legal system of the South. Frequently, northern theater proprietors devised elaborate performances to disguise their policies of racial discrimination. This began at the box office, which was directed to falsely inform black theatergoers that all seats on the main floor were sold out. If black patrons somehow managed to procure a ticket on the parquet, they were led to specially prepared seats that “g[a]ve way beneath them.” The usher would feign surprise, and apologetically tell them that the only other available seats were in the gallery. As the reporter concluded of these charades, “It is hard to see any great difference between this procedure and that employed in the South.” By bridging regional diff erences, including the racial practices of the South, these theater proprietors laid the groundwork for the development of a white mass leisure industry in the United States.
As segregated theaters spread across the North and South, they became an increasingly urgent political concern for African Americans. But without a federal commitment to protecting black rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, the penalties for racial discrimination were limited, even when local and state courts ruled that theaters had violated the rights of black Americans. Northern courts began awarding as little as one cent in damages. In Washington, D.C., a political row in 1908 between lifelong Republican W. Calvin Chase, editor and publisher of the Washington Bee, and Sidney Bieber, chairman of the local election board for the Republican National Committee, demonstrated the obstacles that black Americans faced in mounting campaigns against Jim Crow theaters. In the spring of that year, Chase was furious to discover that Bieber, whom Chase had publicly endorsed, owned part of a chain of moving picture theaters instituting Jim Crow policies in the capital. Chase marched to Bieber’s office and later headed to the Senate chambers, where the editor hovered around the doors and entrances, hoping to track Bieber down. Unsuccessful in his mission, Chase drafted a public letter and published it in the following Saturday edition of his newspaper. “The colored people can not support your ticket,” Chase announced, as “you are the owner or proprietor of the many moving picture theaters in the city that ‘Jim- Crow’ respectable colored citizens, and you claiming to be a Republican.”
Over the following months, Bieber responded with a series of political machinations that reflected the waning ability of black Americans to address inequality through the traditional channels of formal politics. Apparently fearing a backlash from the black citizens of the capital, Bieber arranged for the manager of one of his theaters, A. C. Myers, to speak with a representative from the Bee. Myers explained that he only prohibited “disorderly” blacks from his establishment but had “never objected at any time to respectable colored Americans.” Convinced of Bieber’s sincerity, Chase reversed his accusations. He publicly applauded Bieber for correcting “all irregularities when his attention was called to this discrimination” and even encouraged the black public to attend Bieber’s theaters. After the endorsement, however, Bieber reinstated the policy of segregation, first secretly and later without apology. A frustrated Chase resumed his campaign, reminding Bieber that “if a colored man is good enough to ‘vote’ for you, he ought to be good enough to be allowed to sit anywhere in a theater he is able to pay for a seat.” Yet the futility of the efforts was becoming increasingly clear, and Chase had begun to wonder if the Jim Crow theater might be undermined in other ways. An outspoken proponent of the philosophy of racial uplift, his belief in collective self-help would inform his response to the new colored theater industry.
The surging black demand for motion pictures and other commercial amusements and the rise of the segregated white moving picture theater convinced countless black film exhibitors, jazz and blues musicians, and vaudeville performers—including Tish and Eddie Lee—to rush into the colored theater. Many black theater professionals, especially those who exhibited motion pictures, hailed from the church and lodge show tradition. Others had gotten their start hocking tonics at medicine shows, appearing in burnt cork on the white vaudeville and minstrel stage, or playing in jook joints, the often illicit gathering places for dance and drink associated with the black working class. Agents that once advertised and scheduled shows for traveling film exhibitors translated their experiences into gigs as managers and booking agents for commercial venues. Together, these black entertainment professionals ventured into the colored theaters, venues that featured an eclectic array of media and live performances and were dedicated to the entertainment of black and mixed-race audiences.
Although colored theaters were commercial, public spaces, they continued to rely on the support of religious and fraternal organizations. The Lees, for example, opened their theater in a building belonging to the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, a black fraternal organization and women’s auxiliary with more than 50,000 members and a thousand lodges across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. The Order of Odd Fellows was one of the oldest black institutions in Kentucky. Shortly after the Civil War, members of Louisville’s Center Street AME Church had organized the first branch, which in 1885 joined several other local orders in purchasing a three-story building on Thirteenth and Walnut streets. After a tornado destroyed the building, the Odd Fellows constructed a new property that included the storefront space in which the Lees would open their theater. The interconnected development of these institutions and businesses exemplified the entangled history of black religious, economic, and social life at the turn of the century. The organizational structures of Louisville’s black churches informed the creation of its mutual aid societies, which jointly supported the emergence of the black film industry. These contributions, of course, worked both ways. Black film exhibition assisted black lodges and churches in raising money and building their edifices. And some individuals were church members, fraternal brothers, and theater proprietors all at the same time.
By reserving space in their lodges for black businesses, black cooperative and fraternal organizations played an important role in the growth of the burgeoning colored theater industry. Dozens of colored theaters opened in lodges across the country. In Frankfort, Kentucky, Lucien Taylor conducted a moving picture show in the Odd Fellows Hall; in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, W. A. Baynard managed the International Order of Odd Fellows and Picture Show; and in Atlanta, Georgia, S. L. Lockett ran a moving picture exhibition in the Odd Fellows’ auditorium. Besides the Odd Fellows, other black fraternal organizations including the People’s Benefit and Fraternal Society, the Elks, the Masons, and the Knights of Pythias also sponsored exhibitions and leased space to theaters in their lodges. G. H. Green, the principal of the Douglass School in Lexington, Missouri, announced he would open a theater in the Masonic Hall in 1911. Ill health and a campaign to clean up the local black cemetery, which was littered with unburied human remains, may have distracted him from his plans to open the theater. But in a small town such as Lexington, with few well-maintained spaces open to the black public, the lodge was an especially viable home for new businesses. In Charleston, West Virginia, and Sherman, Texas, colored theaters were opened in Pythian temples. The Knights even made it on the big screen themselves; in 1913, Daly’s Theater in Baltimore featured “race scenes” including a Knights of Pythias parade in Baltimore and the National Baptist Convention in Nashville.
These black-owned properties offered considerable advantages for commercial enterprises like the colored theater. Fraternal organizations built their lodges near black residential neighborhoods and in colored business districts, centrally situated and conveniently accessed by potential theatergoers. Moreover, having long hosted itinerant motion pictures and other entertainments, lodges were already established sites for black social interaction. In some cases, these organizations catalyzed the transformation of their neighborhoods into centers of black entertainment and commercial activity. In Louisville, Kentucky, the Odd Fellows Hall and the black Knights of Pythias Temple (also the site of a colored theater) gave shape to the city’s black business district. Black lodges also housed other types of businesses, including barbershops and banks, which in turn attracted more black companies and additional foot traffic into the neighborhood. The fact that black lodges were “race” operations was of no small consideration to colored theater proprietors. Leasing space in such structures enabled black business owners to circumvent some of the discriminatory treatment they faced, especially the suspicions commonly directed at black amusement venues. Finally, theater proprietors put the philosophy of racial uplift into practice by entering into cooperative financial agreements with fellow members of the race. The mutually beneficial exchange provided revenue for black lodges, which they used to pay their mortgages and maintenance expenses.
A few fraternal and mutual aid organizations elected to open their own theaters. For those organizations that frequently hosted itinerant motion picture shows, constructing more permanent spaces for film exhibition in their halls may not have required extensive remodeling. A slapdash storefront theater could be erected in a matter of hours by blackening windows, hanging up a canvas screen, and setting out some foldable chairs. But fraternal orders, viewing the colored theater as a serious investment and symbol of racial progress, often chose to construct more elaborate facilities. In 1906, the Mobile, Alabama, Odd Fellows voted unanimously to invest $40,000 on a colored theater, which the fraternal organization decided to operate itself. An even more elaborate venture, the Temple Theatre in New Orleans, Louisiana, was scheduled to “throw open its door to the public” in January 1909. “Owned and controlled by the colored Knights of Pythias of Louisiana,” the handsomely appointed theater possessed a fifty-one-foot stage, a grand proscenium arch, and “every facility for the convenience and comfort of the patron.” The Knights intended to primarily feature concerts and stage performances, but they eventually began showing more motion pictures. When black fraternal organizations directly invested in colored theaters, the lines between the public and the private were obscured even further.
One of the most famous colored theaters of the early twentieth century was owned by a working-class organization that straddled the boundaries between mutual aid society and corporation. Formed in 1906, the Laborer’s Building and Loan Association of Washington, D.C., began as a savings and lending cooperative for black construction workers. John Whitelaw Lewis, a former bricklayer and janitor, spearheaded the association as a means for black laborers in the building trades to “combine their humble resources and put them into something tangible.” Two years later, the association had successfully erected a residential building on Eleventh and U streets, and its membership numbered four hundred. They next decided to construct a commercial property, and the crowning jewel and centerpiece of the structure would be a “magnificent theatre” with a “seating capacity of 2,500.” The plans and the sizable amount of capital they hoped to raise for the project, $400,000, reflected how deeply the association’s working-class members had invested their visions of freedom and autonomy in the promises of the colored theater. Their beliefs were conveyed explicitly in the association’s advertisements, which solicited investments in the project through the purchase of stocks. A theater and office building “built by Negroes, for the use of Negroes is a necessity,” they asserted, for both the “welfare” and “self-respect” of the race. The demand for public spaces of leisure had been integrated into a larger vision of black economic and political equality. While the Jim Crow galleries “colonized” black patrons, the association promised that a black-owned and -operated property was “the new emancipation proclamation.” Although the group struggled to raise enough money to fully implement its plans, it finally opened the Hiawatha Theatre in 1909, and expanded its facilities the following year. During the 1910s, it became one of the capital’s most popular black venues for motion picture exhibition.
The circuits of the black church and lodge show further contributed to the colored theater by fostering the development of a highly skilled class of black fi lm exhibitors. These professionals had built reputations, raised capital, and gained industry experience through itinerant fi lm exhibition before opening commercial venues. Former traveling film exhibitors Fleet and Ednah Walker gradually transitioned into more permanent sites of business. They moved to Cadiz, Ohio, where they had once successfully exhibited their moving pictures in the city’s churches, first leasing the Wonderland Moving Picture Theater and later the Cadiz Opera House. Another former itinerant exhibitor, Arthur Laidler Macbeth, began showing films in 1899 near Charleston, South Carolina. His reputation in the photographic arts and his uncanny resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt had made him a popular public lecturer. Macbeth, as a church leader and black Mason, fit the profile of the first generation of itinerant fi lm exhibitors. But he also shared many similarities with the new cohort of colored theater professionals; he was an accomplished professional photographer (his motto was “If you have beauty we’ll take it, if you have none, we make it”), and he belonged to professional organizations such as the National Negro Business League. In 1909, Macbeth opened up a colored theater in Norfolk, Virginia. Located on the ground floor of L. W. “Lem” Bright’s Mount Vernon Hotel, the building (like the Odd Fellows building in Louisville) was one of Norfolk’s landmark black properties, thus providing Macbeth’s Mount Vernon Theatre with both name recognition and an established location.
Other itinerant companies lacked the resources or desire to settle into permanent spaces but expanded their business operations to serve the commercial black theatrical circuit. C. E. Hawk continued to travel across the United States and into Cuba and Mexico but began scheduling appearances in commercial and noncommercial venues. In the spring of 1910, Hawk was still running advertisements geared toward the black church circuit, which announced, “Pastors may have this entertainment at any time or place.” But whereas religious and lodge venues had once been the bread and butter of traveling companies, Hawk had added “opera houses” to his customary list of “churches, halls, schools,” and parks. When not touring the black church and hall circuit, he worked stints in Savannah’s black theaters. In 1910, he spent eight weeks in Savannah, delighting the locals with a program that reportedly consisted of 12,000 feet of fi lm, six illustrated songs, and a choir of jubilee singers. The traveling moving picture exhibitor W. W. Horner transitioned from itinerancy to a permanent venue when he opened a moving picture house in Denton, Maryland, but even then, he occasionally brought his films into black churches. This practice of mixing traveling shows and theater management may have been common; Eddie and Tish Lee, like Horner, remained active in the traveling exhibition circuit, bringing their popular moving picture program to colored festivals and fairs across the state after they opened their theater in Louisville.
The skills and experiences of itinerant black film exhibitors facilitated not only the growth of the colored theater industry but also the technological development of American cinema on the whole. Fleet Walker’s expertise enabled him to invent several mechanisms for improved motion picture exhibition. He received patents from the United States, France, and Canada for devices that allowed film projectionists to quickly and safely switch between multiple reels during an exhibition. One of his most important inventions was the reel “alarm” system. When a predetermined length of film had passed through the projection machine, a spring arm fixed to the reel would sound an alarm, thereby signaling the projectionist to switch to a new reel of fi lm. For Walker, an audible prompt indicating a certain point in a reel of film may have been especially useful when integrating film into his multimedia and song performances on the road. In any case, these types of technologies became indispensable across the film industry as longer multiple reel features grew in popularity. Descriptions of Walker’s invention were mentioned in Eastman Kodak Company publications, and in the 1920s, the Globe Machine and Stamping Company of Cleveland apparently began manufacturing the device. Similarly, Arthur Laidler Macbeth drew on his skills and experiences, both in the field of photographic arts and as a touring film exhibitor, to develop “Macbeth’s Daylight Projecting Screen.” With a series of partitions and a translucent screen, the invention allowed for the display of moving pictures and stereopticon slides in full daylight. Macbeth received a patent from the U.S. government for a version of the invention, which was listed as a “Picture- Projection Theater.”
Along with the industry professionals, a new class of entrepreneurs began investing in colored theaters. “do you know the possibilities for money making in owning and operating a theatre in baltimore,” William H. Daly asked the readers of the Baltimore Afro- American in 1910, hoping to entice outside investors into the colored theater business. As the commercial film industry expanded, businessmen such as Daly promised boundless opportunities in the black consumer mass market. These entrepreneurs hoped to emulate the financial success of white showmen like B. F. Keith, a onetime circus grifter, who earned millions by organizing a chain of “continuous entertainment” vaudeville theaters. Whereas a previous generation of capitalists invested in steel, chemicals, and manufacturing, commercial amusements had become a lucrative new industry for those in search of national prominence and unimaginable wealth. Of course, achieving success was easier said than done. Truman Kella Gibson, a future insurance mogul and proponent of racial progress through black industry, dove into the moving picture business directly after graduating from Harvard University. Prohibited by his parents from the distraction of commercial amusements for most of his childhood, Gibson was hardly prepared for his new career. He later recalled his brief foray into the industry as an “interesting though unprofitable moving picture venture.” Nevertheless, inexperienced would-be investors had some hope; for those wet behind the ears, veterans of the industry offered help—for a price. John Spotts of Topeka, Kansas, for example, began selling a motion picture how-to guide with “full instructions, tips, [and] pointers” to hopeful colored theater managers through the black press.
The new investors included a wealthier class of black men and women, many of whom had earned their money in other “race enterprises.” Reports of the potential for colored theaters circulated at the meetings of the National Negro Business League and other professional organizations. In 1904, the league’s annual meeting brought together established film industry professionals H. C. Conley and Arthur Laidler Macbeth, and future colored theater proprietors, such as A. C. Howard, the “shoe polish king,” from Norfolk, Virginia. Also present was Booker T. Washington, the league’s founder. Washington became involved in several motion picture endeavors over the following years, including the “ ‘Tuskegee’ moving picture show outfit [he carried] with him on his lecture tours” in 1910. Investors from outside the world of commercial amusements such as Howard, a Pullman porter before earning his fortune manufacturing shoe polishes, relied on these connections to learn about the colored theater industry. The most astute newcomers partnered with or hired the assistance of individuals more experienced in the industry. For example, former savings and loan officer Charles H. Douglass of Macon, Georgia, enlisted the help of the traveling film exhibitors and musicians Ludell and Ed C. Price in 1904. “The Two Prices” moved to Macon, where they provided Douglass’s Ocmulgee Park Theatre with invaluable resources—assistance and industry advice. The Prices, in turn, owed much of their knowledge to another industry professional, C. E. Hawk, whom they had once toured with and who likely introduced them to the practice of film exhibition.
An eve ning at the Thirteenth Street Theater in Louisville was, by all accounts, a “corker.” Situated in what would soon become the center of the city’s black business district, the theater literally sparkled with its “brilliantly illuminated entrance” and “handsome box office.” By the fall of 1908, Tish and Eddie Lee had expanded their stage and added new backdrops, scenery, and electrical effects. After purchasing a ticket at the box office, guests were ushered through the front door of the theater where, on a busy evening, six hundred black patrons awaited the Lees’ famous “riproaring show” of “side-splitting” comedy, “the finest and best moving pictures of the age,” and “wonderfully clever songs and dances.” The Lees did not regularly advertise the titles of their moving pictures, but one of their first exhibitions was the Oberammergau passion play, Life of Christ. Their other films, described as “the latest moving pictures,” may have included titles similar to those screened at other colored theaters that year, including Segundo de Chomon’s An Excursion to the Moon (a reproduction of French filmmaker Georges Méliès’s popular trick fi lm A Trip to the Moon) and Edwin S. Porter’s Nero and the Burning of Rome. With Tish and Eddie at the helm, there was never a dull moment— amateur nights and pie-eating contests were “a roar from start to finish.” On other evenings, guests were treated to vaudeville acts performed by “firstclass” artists.
Colored theaters presented new possibilities for social exchange in the city. They were where “everyone goes and where you meet everyone,” as proclaimed by the society columnist for the Washington Bee. Young urbanites gathered at these theaters to show off their finest clothing or to attract the attention of potential suitors. The most upscale theaters became meeting grounds where the “popular dreamy eyed belles, and the young men of our race, intelligent, dignified,” mingled. Fashionable venues such as Washington, D.C.’s Douglass Theatre on U Street drew out the stylish set—ladies adorned in soft turban hats and high-waisted skirts finished with ecru lace, gentlemen in tailored suits with fancy waistcoats of silk or velvet—who attracted just as much attention as the spectacle on- screen. And on summer eve nings, outdoor motion picture gardens served ice cream to young women in neatly hemmed sailor dresses with wide collars of white piqué, while men smoked and meandered through the crowds, their olivewood canes tapping to the live musical accompaniment.
Such displays were virtually impossible in segregated theaters, which were organized to make black patrons invisible to the white audience. Back entryways, hidden staircases, and upstairs galleries shuffled black patrons to the margins of the theater and out of sight from the preferred ground-level seats reserved for whites. The dark, cramped space of the “buzzard’s roost” structurally reinforced the racial hierarchy. Noises emitted by black patrons were more difficult to control, but the physical distance between blacks and whites buffered the black aural presence. White theater owners discouraged talking, laughter, shouting, and screaming by black audiences, and seldom hesitated to usher out black patrons or further segregate their theaters when white patrons complained about the unruly “gallery gods.”
Of course, certain black patrons actually craved anonymity, but as Charles Baudelaire once wrote of the nineteenth-century city-dwelling flâneur, the colored theatergoer hoped to be “in possession of his incognito.” In colored theaters, black people celebrated their ability to willfully blend into a crowd, and most importantly, to move freely through space without reproach. Black men and women could “march through the door without fear and trembling” in “theaters of their own,” explained one newspaper writer from Birmingham, Alabama. By mediating the visual experience of being black in the city, the public spaces of the colored theater turned upside down the meaning of surveillance and display, being unseen and rendering oneself inconspicuous. Whereas a white patron might saunter unwatched and unhindered across the parquet floor of a Jim Crow theater, a black patron nearing that same section of the house would evoke, at best, disapproving stares. When not closely monitored by the white theater manager and ushers, black theatergoers in the colored theater could more freely explore the pleasures of being anonymous so often described by their white urban counterparts. Young men and women, for instance, socialized in the moving picture theater, away from the prying eyes of their elders. When the lights went out, the darkness offered a cloak for “spooning” and other types of forbidden physical contact.
“First-class” colored theaters like the Lees’ hosted moving picture exhibitions with an array of performances and exhibitions including jazz, ragtime, and vaudeville. Black cinema developed in dialogue with these other cultural forms. On the road and later in the theater, black musicians practiced their craft and paid their bills by playing at motion picture shows. Charles McAfee, one of Ohio’s most popular black musicians, was frequently hired to perform concerts along with Vitascope picture shows. Blind Harris, “a pianist of some note,” played with an itinerant church moving picture show in 1906, winning him favorable reviews in the black press and publicity for his talents. Professional musicians like the Conleys and the Prices had advanced both the screen and sound practices of black cinema by integrating motion pictures into their concerts. Similarly, black film exhibitors, writers, musicians, and actors, along with their respective arts, continued to grow together in the colored theater. These common spaces facilitated the cultivation and cross-pollination of a broad range of cultural productions. American jazz, for example, appeared in black theaters before splitting into its own clearly defined cultural form, which became popular enough to sustain venues solely dedicated to its performance. The financial exigencies of colored theater proprietors factored into these developments. When Howard Powell of Carrolton, Missouri, decided to open a new motion picture house in East St. Louis, Illinois, he sought business partners experienced in a variety of arts, preferably a “colored man and wife one that can double stage or piano.” Limited resources demanded a great deal of professional dexterity, as attested by Tom Gales of Cincinnati, Ohio. The multitalented Gales was not only the Gaither Theater’s moving picture operator, he was also the porter, stage manager, usher, booking agent, ticket teller, and actor in the company’s vaudeville performances.
Industry professionals identified colored theaters as either vaudeville or picture houses, but most vaudeville theaters after 1908 exhibited moving pictures. In fact, theaters that claimed to be vaudeville houses often booked relatively few, if any, live performances. Vaudeville troupes generally required more overhead, labor, and time to organize and book than did moving pictures. Black theater own ers, nonetheless, sought vaudeville identifi cation to distinguish themselves from cheap nickel theaters, which were quickly earning a reputation for seediness among middle-class white reformers. Th e desire for “respectability” was not just rooted in a desire to attract a wealthier class of patrons; it was also essential for warding off the suspicions of angry whites who readily accused black business owners of operating “negro dives.” For example, black theater owner J. T. Coleman of Columbus, Georgia, was forced to close his business in 1912. In response to complaints of “noisy conduct” at his theater, police arrested Coleman, charged him with running a “disorderly house,” and held him on a $100 bond. Two other employees were charged with “simple larceny.” The eagerness of city officials to shut down the establishment may have stemmed from a fear over race mixing, as a group of whites living across the street reportedly patronized the colored theater. Of course, black business owners could not assume that abiding by the rules of proper racial etiquette and appropriate middle-class behavior guaranteed protection either. The Dreamland Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a model of middle-class respectability, with its two-story brick edifice (rather than a cheap storefront), “high-class” entertainments, and the most “proper” type of management—a husband-and-wife team. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), white mobs targeted the theater during the 1921 race riots, and completely destroyed the building.
At the same time black theater owners had to shield themselves from attack, they also had to attend to a very different problem—that of attracting customers into their venues. Theater proprietors could not afford to exclude working-class patrons from their businesses. Both the “toughs” and the “aristocratic” members of the race attended colored theaters like the Globe in Jacksonville, Florida. “Although there is a decided difference between the elements,” one local remarked, “it is so drowned beneath the genereal [sic] feeling of pride in the place that it is discernable only to those who really know the difference from years of acquaintance with the city and the people.” While white venues ranged from opera houses that featured “high-class” live performances for wealthier audiences to nickelodeons that appealed to working-class and immigrant audiences with their cheap, continuous film exhibitions, black proprietors had to market themselves to a broader class demographic. At times, this meant juggling between claims of “refinement” and the demands of the working class. Black managers needed to “suit all kinds of people and cater to everybody” in order to stay in business. Even the fancy New Royal Theater in Asbury, New Jersey—famous for its distaste of “crudism” and “vulgarity”—relied on the general public for support and could only hope that its audience would “gradually be composed of the better class.”
Attending to the desires of female patrons was an equally important consideration for colored theater managers. Women continued to outnumber men in cities, even in some places in the North—and thus constituted a considerable percentage of the potential audience. Moreover, the presence of women provided a mark of respectability that protected the theater from many of the criticisms lobbied at all-male spaces of amusement. A. B. Grant’s moving pictures in Kansas City, Missouri, were “a credit to the colored people,” the Wichita Searchlight reported, suggesting “every man should take his wife and children to see them.” Theater managers did not defer only to men as the arbiters of women’s social lives; advertisements also directly addressed women consumers. “Ladies, make this your theatre,” urged the American Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana, appealing to the black female public. Black theaters also attempted to lure in female customers with gifts and prizes. “A useful and beautiful souvenir,” one theater promised, “will be presented to each lady on opening night.” Sometimes, the deference to women amounted to frivolous reinscriptions of middle-class ideas of femininity such as when managers promised to feature “inoffensive” pictures without images of crime or sexual themes. Yet even these considerations acknowledged certain deference to the black female consumer.
The majority of black theaters were constructed—as Juli Jones, the theater critic for the Indianapolis Freeman, pointed out in 1909— in “small cities of the West and the South.” Cities with thriving black populations might see a proliferation of theaters along a certain thoroughfare within a matter of months. Colored theaters appeared almost overnight when cash- strapped proprietors leased storefront spaces instead of building entirely new structures. A little over a year after the Queen Theatre opened in Baltimore in 1907, five other colored theaters opened in quick succession: the Renard, the Home Theater, Daly’s, the People’s Amusement Company, and the Eagle Moving Picture Parlor. Some moving picture theaters were part of even grander ventures to provide amusements for the black public. For example, two of the wealthiest black residents of Dayton, Ohio, Mose Moore and his “energetic wife,” Marion Smart Moore, opened Dahomey Park in 1909. Along with “the theatre and moving picture show,” the park featured bowling alleys, shooting galleries, and a scenic railway. “Everything will be decidedly Colored at this park,” the Moores announced, “from the lemonade to the doll babies.”Located on the outskirts of Dayton, places such as Dahomey Park appealed to churches and lodges organizing “excursions,” group leisure tours to out-of- town locations.
One of the most vibrant black cinema cultures in the country emerged in the capital city, after tens of thousands of new settlers poured in from the Maryland and Virginia hinterlands after the financial panic of 1893. Before the Harlem Renaissance, Washington, D.C., was the capital of black life in America. Home to the nation’s largest black urban population before World War I, Washington housed Howard University and other renowned black intellectual and artistic institutions. Cinema quickly became an integral aspect of black life in the capital. Itinerant exhibitor H. Charles Pope and one of the most famous and long-lasting traveling showmen, H. C. Conley.
From Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life by Cara Caddoo. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.