Carolina Theatre Looks to Document Its Own Desegregation Moment

Duke officials support effort to mark theatre's 50th anniversary of integration

Duke and Durham community members gather at the Carolina Theatre last week to remember the efforts that led to the theatre's desegregation in 1963. Photo Courtesy Aaron Bare
Duke and Durham community members gather at the Carolina Theatre last week to remember the efforts that led to the theatre's desegregation in 1963. Photo Courtesy Aaron Bare

As Duke University celebrates 50 years of black students on campus, the Carolina Theatre is also marking its 50th year of integration with plans for "Confronting Change," a permanent civil rights exhibit featuring video.

Wednesday evening, nearly 200 members of the Duke and Durham community gathered at the theater to preview the plans and raise funds for the project, which will be unveiled early next year. Duke and community leaders said it was important to ensure that a crucial moment in local history when Durham civil rights leaders fought to desegregate the Carolina Theatre is not forgotten.

"As we talk about the early years of integration, it makes sense to think of how Duke students accessed -- or didn't access -- the theatre," said Benjamin Reese, co-chair of Duke's 50th anniversary committee. Reese said Duke students, black and white, played an integral part in the theatre's desegregation.

Reese hopes that the first five black students that integrated Duke can have representation in the exhibit.

The Carolina Theatre, which opened in 1926, admitted black patrons, but they were forced to enter via a separate entrance and to sit on the second balcony.

"To not tell this story is to disrespect those who made it happen," said Tim Alwran, the Carolina Theatre board chair.

Carl Whisenton, co-chair of the theater's civil rights committee, was one of the civil rights protestors in Durham in the early 60s. He said the exhibit will be an educational tool for local residents and students and a site for tourists.

"I hope that this exhibit will show people how Durham used to be," Whisenton said. "I hope we can look at it as a change agent, confronting change."

The committee has raised nearly $13,000 for the initial design, according to Carolina Theatre President and CEO Bob Nocek. Its ultimate goal is to raise $50,000.

The exhibit will be on the third floor of the theater and will illustrate how civil rights protestors in Durham fought for equal access.

"I'd like it to be immersive. I'd like for you to walk off the elevator and feel like you're completely enveloped by the story," Nocek said.  "We'd like it to be educational so that you feel like you can spend an hour or two up here listening to interviews, reading content and just really coming to understand what took place here."

Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden lived down the street from the Carolina Theatre when blacks had to climb the 97 steps to sit on the second balcony.

Hearing about that time period "brought back some painful memories but at the same time it is education for those folk who have come behind us," Cole-McFadden said. 

Jonathan Alexander is a 2013 graduate of N.C. Central University who is working this summer as an intern for Duke's Office of News and Communications.