There was a time before public accommodation laws were put in force in Maryland in the mid-1960s that African-Americans attending shows in theatres across the state were forced to sit in a separate area while other movie-goers seated themselves in the main auditorium. These paying customers typically entered through a separate door and were relegated to an uppermost balcony overlooking the main floor. They used separate restrooms and didn’t have access to the refreshment stand or the same water-fountain. Many Maryland’s theatres desegregated in 1964 after the legislature passed an open accommodation law, just before the national Civil Rights Act desegregated public accommodations across the nation.
There are many lingering, painful memories about the Jim Crow era on the Eastern Shore so Friday evening, Chestertown’s Prince Theatre hosted a “theatre reconciliation celebration” that acknowledged the “social inequalities” that took place there. “For many years this building was a privately owned movie theater that had two entrances, one for white people and one for black people. There were two staircases to the balcony. One led to the lower balcony which was for white people and other led to the upper balcony of benches which was for black people. I expect that many of you here tonight came to this building back in those days,” the president of the Prince Foundation, Philip Dutton, said.
After formal comments by ministers, public officials, and representatives of the theatre, the floor was opened for remarks from the audience. People who used to sit in that upper balcony offered moving remarks recalling the segregated era in this Maryland movie-houses. Some remembered the enjoyable hours they spent up in that balcony taking in the big movies of the time from the best vantage point in the theatre. But they also remembered the hurt of trying to understand why they were relegated to that upper balcony while friends had the run of the house. Others, having no experience with this time or place, thanked the Foundation for the landmark program that recognized the past.
The engaging evening concluded when the stage was opened for all interested performers. The music began with one of our favorite groups, Sombarkin, and continued on from there. We were so pleased that we were able to attend the Theatre Reconciliation Celebration and thank the Prince Theatre Foundation and the African-American Heritage Council for sponsoring this inspiring program.