Earlier this summer, an edition of this newsletter asked for audience input about the Florida Theatre’s history during segregation. We had received an inquiry from a citizen activist and the Florida Times-Union, and having surprisingly little information in our own archives, we turned to the audience and the public for their memories. Many of you responded, and I write to tell you what we’ve learned.
Many of you remember taking the bus downtown as kids in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, going shopping first, having a soda or a burger somewhere, and then going to a matinee at the theatre, before taking the bus home again just in time for dinner. One gentleman even remembered using bottle caps as admission.
But many of you remember not being welcome at the Florida Theatre at all.
One of my favorite slogans is “Silence Equals Death.” It is the motto of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Although it’s the slogan of a direct action group founded in the mid-1980’s in response to the early days of the AIDS crisis, it’s a slogan with deep meaning and varied applications and implications. In this instance, it reminds me that some things, no matter how difficult, must be talked about. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
With that in mind, based on the personal oral and written histories we received, we have amended the official history of the Florida Theatre to include a new section on segregation. The Theatre’s history is posted on our web site, but I have excerpted the new section below.
We envision this as an ongoing conversation though, so if you happen to have more information to share with us, we welcome hearing from you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the admin office at 904-355-5661.
SEGREGATION (from the official history of the Florida Theatre)
During the years of segregation, the practice of Jacksonville’s entertainment venues was for the entire theatre to be racially segregated. When the Florida Theatre first opened its doors in 1927, there were thirteen other theatres in the northbank area of downtown. The Florida Theatre was a “white only” building. No photographs of “white only” signage at the Florida Theatre survive, probably because it was not needed. It was commonly understood which buildings welcomed the white population, and which buildings welcomed the black population. The latter included the Strand Theatre (West Ashley and North Jefferson), the Center Theater (West Adams Street) and the Ritz Theatre (West State and North Davis).
Shannon West, a present day audience member, recalls, “In the words of your average genteel middle class southern adult at the time, ‘It simply isn’t done. They have the places they go and we have ours. It’s best that way and they are happy with that.’”
Present day audience member Toni Lang Philips remembers, “I did not go to the Florida Theatre for movies, ever. My mom says she didn’t either. We went to the Center Theater downtown, as well as the Strand, the Roosevelt and the Ritz.”
Several present day audience members remember that, in the words of one gentleman, “The Florida Theatre didn’t have to be segregated. The black community just went to the Ritz instead.” Of course, this thought process comes perilously close to justifying a Separate but Equal policy, and altogether ignores the fact that if a racially integrated audience was welcome at the Florida Theatre, or at any of the other “white only” venues in the first place, separate venues would not have been necessary.
Integration of the audience at the Florida Theatre began in the mid to late 1960’s, and then in 1972, the last mainstream movie shown at the Florida Theatre was The Concert for Bangladesh, a documentary of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s benefit concerts for flood victims of that South Asian country. Will Henley, now the publisher of EU magazine, but then a young employee of the Florida State Theatre movie chain, remembers that the very next day, the theatre began showing Blaxploitation movies like Super Fly, Blacula and Foxy Brown, and overnight the audience makeup went from slightly integrated to almost entirely black. It was a typical survival strategy employed by aging movie palaces in downtown urban areas, which were then trying to survive the rise of multiplexes and the flight of the white population to the suburbs. Along with Kung Fu movies, these films remained staples of the theatre’s schedule until it was sold and closed in 1980, reopening in 1983 as a nonprofit performing arts center whose first four performances included an African-American act, The Spinners.
Hello Friends and Neighbors,
Lately, I see a lot of cell phone video footage on the news: video of average citizens performing heroic feats, such as pulling people from burning buildings, dragging swimmers out of deadly rip tides, or successfully performing CPR on cardiac victims. While applauding the heroes, I also wonder who are the people making these videos? How did they decide that making a video was more important than actually helping to solve the crisis?
With that in mind, I’d like to share that a few weeks ago, our friends at The Florida Times-Union published an editorial that seemed to have begun when a citizen activist wrote the paper inquiring for copies of historical articles on the desegregation of the Florida Theatre. I can’t help but think of the crisis video makers when I first found this out. Why was the call to the newspaper, instead of engaging the Theatre in an important discussion directly?
Because let’s be clear, we agree, it is absolutely an important discussion.
According to the article, they “couldn’t find much.” They contacted “various experts on local history,” and also had, “no luck.” Then paper contacted me, and I too was unable to provide much information. While we have good records from the birth of the theatre in 1927, and the rebirth of the theatre in 1983, our historical archives for the years in between are incomplete and perhaps even contradictory.
Segregated venues typically had separate street entrances leading where the African American audience would be seated. The Florida Theatre has no such documented entrance and furthermore, none of the historical photos we have identify anything being “Colored Only.”
In the historical photos we do have, however, it is impossible not to notice that everyone is White. This would seem support the idea that perhaps the entire building was segregated. We’ve heard second-hand that a former employee of the private company that owned the Theatre before 1980, an African-American man, said that when he delivered films to the Theatre, he was not permitted past the entry lobby. Maybe it’s because deliverymen were not allowed past the front door, but it’s not hard to imagine there was another reason.
On the other hand, we have also heard from a former board member that a friend of his, an African-American woman, remembers attending the Theatre on several occasions, possibly as early as the 1950s or 1960s.
The truth is we don’t really know much about the Theatre’s history as it pertains to segregation. However, as the Times-Union editorial observed, “Every generation has a responsibility to show respect for its past,” and we agree. So with that in mind, if you know something about the Florida Theatre’s history with regards to segregation, we would love to hear from you.
Maybe you have an old photo, souvenir, or story that was handed down to you from a previous generation. Whatever your historical connection is with the Theatre, we encourage you to get off of the sidelines and metaphorically put down the iPhone, to become part of the conversation and history of our city.
Please feel free to call me directly at our administrative office, 904-355-5661 or email me at email@example.com. I’m in the office 9:00am-5:00pm during the week. I’m also in attendance for at least a part of almost every show, if you’d like to share face-to-face.
Let’s come together to get the history of this Theatre in the books.