Fifty years ago, when African Americans wanted to watch a movie at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, they had to climb 97 steps up to the second floor balcony.
Today, there’s a new Civil Rights exhibit on display outside that second floor balcony to honor the fight to desegregate the theater.
No stairs for Jacqueline Jones. Yesterday when she went to see the exhibit “Confronting Change” at the Carolina Theatre, she took the elevator. When the doors opened, tears flowed.
"I was a part of all of this. I can’t say what part I was in. All of this just brings back memories," said Jones.
The Carolina Theatre opened in 1926. By the early 1960s, young people from Whitted Junior High School, Hillside High, North Carolina College, and the local business college began to peacefully protest the separate theater entrance for blacks and the 97 steps to the second balcony.
Carl Whisenton chaired the committee to create the exhibit. He gazes at the original ticket window where they purchased movie tickets.
"It’s really amazing, it’s really amazing," said Whisenton. "Oh yes, it was saved. I was glad they told me they had saved it. It’s such an important aspect of our history."
Whisenton says the exhibit makes him proud.
"I really like the Carolina Theatre now. That’s one of the things we wanted to do, to bridge the gap, get past the past," said Whisenton.
Durham has a long, strong Civil Rights history.
The city was featured in a CBS News "Eyewitness" report in early 1963. The broadcast is a part of the exhibit. The television anchor reads:
"To these Negroes in the city of Durham, North Carolina is not moving fast enough. Like members of their race in Greensboro, and Charlotte, Raleigh and High Point too, they say they want to be granted the right to eat in desegregated restaurants, not just at lunch counters."
In 1963, Wense Grabarek was mayor of Durham. He helped negotiate the desegregation of restaurants and in July 1963, the desegregation of the Carolina Theatre. Grabarek was present for the unveiling of the exhibit.
"It’s a pleasure to memorialize that moment and it’s so nice to see all of us walking in through the same door here today, sitting at the same tables together," said Grabarek.
Grabarek says Durham accomplished what many communities could not.
"The city of Durham handled it voluntarily, voluntarily, this community desegregated months before the King ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and more than a year before the first Civil Rights Act federally was passed. And we received national and international attention for that," said Grabarek.
PNC Bank helped pay for a good part of the exhibit along with an education component. Carolina Theatre CEO Bob Nocek says it was important to show the public what it meant to be separate.
"When we sat down four years ago and started talking about this idea of doing a series of exhibits in the building that would tell our story, this was just obviously one of the most important," said Nocek.
"Confronting Change" will be a permanent exhibit at the Carolina Theatre.