Hampton Roads Response

The Birth of a Nation and The Attucks Theatre

“By all of us working together we can not only raise the standard of our commercial achievements, but we can give employment to the growing talent of our race, and other enterprises.” – Oscar Micheaux

BOAA-dunbar1In 1915 the nationally explosive issue of D. W. Griffith’s racially injurious The Birth of a Nation burst upon the local scene with significant impact, both negative and positive. An ordinance had been passed which sought to prevent its showing. The Pitt Ordinance pitted the management of the Colonial against those the papers only referred to as being of “the Negro race.” That the City Council of a Southern city would even debate its showing, especially after local honorary son Thomas Dixon’s original play, The Clansman, had been performed numerous times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the city, suggests a significant and influential group of black and religious leaders were protesting. Secondly, the local Hampton Institute contested the Griffith narrative by producing their own cinematic rejoinder, an epilogue in The Birth of a Race that supplied footage of a half-century of black “progress.” In the face of regional lynchings, a rigorous political activism propelled engagement of the black community in all aspects of culture, including dealing with film exhibition and moving going habits. Indeed, The Norfolk Journal and Guide celebrated Norwalk, Connecticut’s ban on the “notorious photo-play.”

The possibility of exhibiting the film at the Colonial Theatre at the intersection of Tazewell Street and Boush Street provoked heated debate. While still at the height of its run in larger cities, the pending arrival of The Birth of a Nation to Norfolk was viewed as notable for two factors. First, it was a stupendous theatrical offering about reconstruction and the creative work of familiar Norfolk celebrity, Thomas Dixon. Secondly, and more importantly for the civic emergence of Norfolk, it would give “Norfolk the distinction of being the first city of the South to witness a mighty dramatic narrative which, although distinctly Southern in atmosphere and theme, has been shown only in the larger cities of the North.”

In a surprising move, the Common Council passed the Pitt Ordinance (7-4) designed to prevent The Birth of a Nation’s exhibition in Norfolk. Councilman Pitt and six associates passed the ordinance, attacking the film on the grounds that it was “highly objectionable”, “lascivious”, “insulting to any audience, white or black”, “calculated to arouse race hatred and possibly race riots,” and as “unfit to be displayed in any city.” Pitt personally accused the film of being a “Commercialized Horror.” The decision went to the board of aldermen and the Mayor Mayo for concurrence. As they were deliberating, a riot broke out in Philadelphia over the film. The counsel for the Wells Theatre argued for the city supported the Mayor arguing that the city had the power to stop “any immoral or indecent performance”. Despite the fact that over 38% of the Norfolk population was black and tensions were running high about the film, the southern sentiments of a 6-5 majority of the Aldermen killed the ordinance by referring it to committee and it was eventually screened.

BOAA NewportIt is in this context that the Attucks Theatre was conceived of and constructed. With a seeming lack of options for either political action or self determination in the amusement business, the black community in Norfolk began to seek out and establish alternatives. While certain second-run theatres in the teens recognized the economic viability of appealing to the black population, the demand from black community for a first-class movie venue, preferably one owned and operated by the community, remained unsated. The possibility of a fully owned and operated “colored theatre” surfaced in 1919. The E. C. Brown Syndicate from Philadelphia, and the Twin City Amusement Corporation,” an institution being operated by colored citizens’ capital had been issued a permit for the construction of a $125,000 building at 1020 Church street, to be used as a playhouse and to be devoted to the interests of the young people of that section of the city.” The Attucks Theatre quickly became a focal point of Norfolk’s black community’s entertainment and social life on Church Street, On this crowded, busy business thoroughfare, viewed with enormous economic potential, the Attucks the Attucks represented the biggest business investment that blacks had made in Tidewater, and was exchanged on regular basis.

As a center of black culture in the “black downtown” of Norfolk, The Attucks was comparable to Harlem’s Apollo. The three story structure of old vaudeville and movie house was a preeminent symbol of the black community’s attempt to deal with the reality of segregation, as they were not welcomed in downtown shopping areas where whites congregated. The Attucks served as a portal to escape a racist society into a world of community, entertainment and celebration. Throughout their existence, theatres in the black community have been used for charity and numerous benevolent purposes including instilling a greater sense of unity among churches, social groups, and the theatres. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, The Attucks continues to act as both a center and answer for the black community in Hampton Roads and the nation.