Hints of Segregation Past

Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away I wrote a post about the layers of history we can see in our architecture by looking at the backs and sides of buildings. That post “Where History Meets Architecture” was about the old covered stairway on the back facade of the old Paramount Theater in Clarksdale, originally the segregated entrance for Clarksdale’s African American movie-goers.

Sometimes the backs and sides of buildings are areas that owners, with good intentions, want to see prettied up and turned into courtyards for after-work get-togethers or the like. But if we don’t watch carefully, we’ll miss the deeper meanings to be found in these “unpretty” places and we can easily clean them up so well that we remove one or more layers that add depth to our history.

I found something similar to that back stair, but even less obvious, a while back in Tylertown, down in Walthall County. A friend of mine–a Tylertown native–and I were looking at this building, which my friend informed me was an old movie theater:

Well, since I’m a sucker for Roman brick (that long narrow brick you see here) and I liked the Modernism of the building and the sunlight on the facade, I took a picture. As we walked up closer, my friend pointed out that on the side of the building, right near the front, was this area that looked like an old doorway, now patched with a lighter shade of brick:

My friend, who is black, explained to me that that’s where Tylertown’s African American residents entered the theater, turned right and went up the stairs to the balcony. Ever since then, I’ve tried to remember to peek around the corner of theaters, and last week in Hattiesburg, I saw another almost identical feature on the Saenger Theater (which made the cut on our 101 List).

I suspect that this brick patch represents a similar side stair that took black patrons up to the balcony. The fact that it’s on a “secondary” facade doesn’t make it less important than the wonderful Art Deco “primary” facade–in fact, that’s the whole point. Both the great facade and the patch on the side should be preserved as they each teach us something valuable. That’s one more reason I love looking at old buildings–just when you think you’ve got them all figured out, you take another look and see something you hadn’t noticed before!

I think and hope that we’ve reached a time in our history where all Mississippians can recognize the value of these layers of history–not to beat ourselves up over, but to have a deeper understanding of ourselves and the history we share. The layers can also tangibly demonstrate to us that things that made perfect sense to a large proportion of one generation may make no sense at all to us, and perhaps that realization will give us a bit of humility in our own assumptions today, recognizing that the next generation may find us similarly ridiculous.

Are theaters the only building types we would find this remnant of segregation, or will there be patched doorways in other kinds of buildings, like department stores, depots, hospitals? Courthouses? City Halls? Robert Weyeneth of the University of South Carolina wrote an interesting article titled “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past” in the Fall 2005 of the Public Historian journal, but much more work needs to be done to tweak out all the ways Jim Crow was carried out in our built environment. Let’s get out there and look closer, shall we? What we find may or may not surprise us, but it will definitely be interesting!



Categories: African American History, Architectural Research, Theaters

16 replies

  1. A great example of this that’s not a theater is the Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery, Ala. They’ve actually included it in their interpretation of the historic building. He’s a link to a photo of the exterior.

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  2. What a wonderful essay! Charles Lamb has a worthy successor. Thank you.

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  3. I recall slave balconies, later to be called Negro balconies in old country churches in Mississippi in the 1950s, though don’t recall specifically their locations. Were there separate entrances?

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    • I’ve never seen a separate entrance on antebellum churches, although some churches had two front entrances, supposedly for men and women to enter separately. As soon as they could after the Civil War, most African Americans left the white churches to form their own denominations or branches of existing white denominations, so by the time Jim Crow really kicked in, they were already in their own buildings. It’s certainly something to keep in mind when looking at antebellum churches though. Maybe somebody’s already done research on that topic–seems like it should have been done by now?

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    • Just revisited this post and remembered that the Rodney Presbyterian Church has a separate side entrance that opens to stairs directly up to its balcony.

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      • The Rodney baptist church does also. Though at some point this exterior entrance was walled over and the balcony stair entrance was changed to an interior one.

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        • The Bethesda Baptist Church of Crawford did a makeover of its front, circa 1955, after the hiring of a young preacher just out of the New Orleans Seminary.
          The front of the church had separate doors. And there was a four-ft. wall separating the pews inside the church. First the two-doors were replaced with a single door and old pews removed along with the “separation” wall.

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  4. Excellent article and good thoughts to ponder. No, history should not be papered over as the stains will still show through. This would be a good subject for a book!

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  5. Fascinating. When I lived in Asia in the 1950s, we Europeans (Anglo-Saxons) sat in the balcony, but I can’t recall if there was a separate entrance.

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    • Maybe it was like the “Visitor’s Section” at Eureka in Hattiesburg. In the late 1940s, an employee of my grandfather’s business took me to the football games on Friday nights. So, I asked him why we are going to the negro games. Gesticulating with his right-hand fist into the palm of his left-hand, he said, “I like to hear the leather pop.”
      And we stood up every time and hollered when the cheerleaders would chant, “Two-bits, four-bits, six-bits a dollar, all for Eureka stand up and holler!” Yes, Eureka football players had shoulder pads even in the 1940s.

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  6. When I lived in Cleveland, Miss., in the 1980s, I found myself faced with a pair of doors to an optomitrist’s office with no clear clue as to which I should enter. I picked one and apparently guessed wrong because the receptionist asked me to go out and re-enter through the other. There must have been two entirely separate sets of waiting and examining rooms within – but I cannot report on those because I never went in that other door. But there must be remnants of those sort of “duplex” establishments in commercial districts – just not as obvious as the theaters.

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    • That’s fascinating! I’ll have to keep an eye out for those kinds of commercial and office buildings–have never heard of that before! And this was in the 1980s? Let me see now . . . wasn’t that like 20 years later than might be expected?

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  7. Just by coincidence came across this interesting little note in the Vicksburg Evening Post, March 17, 1910 issue. There was a big page 1 article about the grand opening of the new Valley Department Store on Washington Street and they went floor by floor describing the scenes. Then there was this note on the third floor, where the piano and music department and oriental rugs were: “An innovation on this floor consists of a rest room for the colored patrons of the store. This is the first store in the South to provide such accommodations for the colored people and will doubtless be one greatly appreciated.”

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  8. Today’s Hattiesburg-American has a front page story on the history of the Saenger Theater. In the article , Ellen Ciurezak lists New Orleans architect Emile Weile as the designer of the Art Deco theater for the Saenger Brothers in 1929. I would assume that Hotel Hattiesburg was part of the project, as the two buildings are architecturally “joined at the hip”.”
    In an earlier post, I had written that architect F.W. Schulz was the architect, based upon “Folders” in the Tatum Lumber Co. Invoice container box showing “architect Schulz 1927- 1929.” Schulz’s name is also associated with The Methodist Episcopal Church-South Hospital in the same time period. The article states that the Saenger Bros. “empire disappeared” and Paramount Studios assumed ownership. This was about the time of the Depression. I’m speculating that when W.S. F. Tatum became a member of the board of stockholders of Hibernia Bank of New Orleans through the RFC, maybe he acquired the Hotel Hattiesburg and the Sanger theater. A call to the Tatum Archivist,Dick Molphus, could quickly end the speculation.
    And in Tatum Container Box 365, Folder Box 8, there is a brochure, “1910 Pipe Organ.”
    Ms. Ciurezak states that during The “Horse Opera” days, westerns films were popular. My father told me that he took me to the Saenger to see Tom Mix and his horse “on stage” when I was a three-year old. I didn’t find that in the search the of H-B newspaper archives, but I did find last week a story from the January 30, 1942 edition of the H-B on the appearance of Al Joelson at the USO entertainment center for Camp Shelby soldiers .The story goes on to say that Joelson will entertain the troops with his favorites, “Mammy” and “Sammy Boy.” Obviously, it was NOT the USO on Front Street, but the address given was not the “white” USO located at the address where USO performers appeared during the 1940s– the the current American Legion Hut 24 . Camp Shelby Museum has a new archivist, Ms. Mercier, who is seeking information on that.

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  9. Correction:
    The art deco Forrest Hotel and the Saenger Theater were architecturally “joined at the hip,” not Hotel Hattiesburg, aka The Milner Hotel.

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  10. Further reading reveals that the architect of Tatum’s Forrest Hotel was St. Louis architect George Dennis Barnett who died in 1922 before the construction of the Forrest hotel in 1927-28. None of his career architectural work reveals any dabbling in the Art Deco style. The next move is to physically look into the F. W. Schulz folders and correspondence of the Tatum papers for links to Barnett, if any. Maybe it’s in Tatum’s New Orleans Hibernia Bank connections during the Depression.

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