DURHAM: Struggle to desegregate at center of new exhibit - WFLA News Channel 8

Struggle to desegregate at center of Carolina Theatre exhibit

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A black patron tries to purchase a ticket at the whites-only window at the Carolina Theatre. (Carolina Theatre, Contributed) A black patron tries to purchase a ticket at the whites-only window at the Carolina Theatre. (Carolina Theatre, Contributed)
DURHAM, N.C. -

A tear fell down Vivian McCoy's cheek as she recalled the fight to desegregate the Carolina Theatre in Durham 50 years ago.

"In 1960 we were treated as second class citizens," said McCoy, who was once a civil rights protester, "having to climb 97 stairs just to get a ticket to go into the theater."

Although Carolina Theatre admitted black patrons when it opened in 1926, they were forced to enter through a separate entrance. The also had to sit on the second balcony of the theater.

By July 1963, the theater became the last city-owned facility to desegregate, and all patrons were finally able to sit wherever they chose. Now a permanent exhibit in the theater fully illustrates how protesters like McCoy changed history.

On display in the exhibit are images of bravery as persistent protesters attempted to buy tickets from the whites-only booth. They were rejected every time, but McCoy said she wasn't afraid.

"We were young, we didn't even think about it," McCoy said. "Later in life we realized, 'I could have really been hurt.'"

Visitors will also see a broadcast of the evening news the day the theater was finally desegregated as it made national headline; also the original window frame and rail from "Colored" ticket window.

"You would come here, come to this window, put your hand on this railing to buy a ticket," explained exhibit co-chair Carl Whisenton. "We would [then] have to walk up 97 steps" to get to the second balcony.

Whisenton admits they would throw popcorn onto the white patron below -- a sense of payback. But the opening of the "Confronting Change" exhibit is the real redemption.

"This is a story that would be easy to forget over time. A lot of people who participated in this won't be with us forever," Carolina Theatre CEO and President Bob Nocek said

For some, though, the wounds are hard to heal.

"Today I realized the healing has not totally gone. So it's still emotional," McCoy said.

The exhibit was made possible in part by a PNC sponsorship.

Melanie Sanders

Melanie anchors the 6 PM news. Her "What's Next" series features an engaging approach to storytelling and highlights the leaders in innovation who are shaping our future. Check it out HERE! More>>

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