Segregation and the Movies
Annie Lynch, a black lady from Grahamtown, came to live in with us when Mama went to work on the 2nd shift, which Daddy already worked. We called her “Auntie.” She tended us and did the housework and cooking during the week, but returned to her house and family on Forest Street in Grahamtown each weekend.
On her first day with us, I had my first close-up experience with Segregation. Annie had prepared breakfast for us, which Daddy normally did, and we sat down to eat. When I asked why Annie was eating her breakfast on the pull-out cabinet surface, rather than at the table with us as our former white babysitter, Ruby, had done, Daddy’s answer was “Because. Now hush and eat your breakfast.”
I politely offered to slide my chair over and make room for her to sit beside me. Annie, in an attempt to ease the situation, said, “That’s all right. This is where I want to eat.” I had never been personally acquainted with anyone of another race. Of course I knew Annie was different in that her complexion was much darker than mine, but did not know that her color made such a difference. I had no knowledge of what segregation was, so was puzzled as to why Annie did not sit with us. However, when Daddy said to hush, we did so, and I did.
There was an incident earlier than the time Annie came to stay with us when I was aware of a difference between one’s treatment, but did not realize until later that it was because of race. I was probably about three or four years old, and Daddy was taking me to get ice cream at the Blue Bird Café, which was then located just west of the intersection of West Main and Cherry Mountain Streets between the Piedmont Drug Store and the bank with the town clock on the corner, while we waited for the bus to Cliffside.
He would take me to the bus station, which was then in one of the adjoining storefronts in that block, to take a bus to visit with the Hill families. He would put me on the bus in Forest City and instruct the bus driver to put me off in Cliffside, where some of the Hill family would be waiting for me. I loved to spend as much time as my parents allowed with them, and did it often. Grandma and Grandpa Hill, Annie, Ada, and Bill lived on South Main Street across the street from Aunt Nell and Uncle Roy Hill and their son Sam, and they all paid me lots of attention and spoiled me.
That day with Daddy, I saw that a black man was being handed his ice cream through a small window that opened onto the street from the cafe, and asked Daddy to hold me up and let me order our ice cream that way. He said we were not allowed to do that, but must go inside. I thought it was very unfair of them to let the man order and receive his ice cream through the little window and not to let us do so.
Since I learned to read before I was five years old, I had seen the signs on the two drinking fountains in the Forest City Town Square reading “White” and “Colored,” and would have obeyed the sign and drunk from the white fountain assigned to me without questioning why they were so labeled. However, I do recall once a few years later being dared by my brother Jerry to drink from the fountain with the colored sign. I did so, and then wondered if I would be in bad trouble if a black person saw me and told on me for drinking from their fountain. I do not recall exactly when the signs were removed, but believe they disappeared when some problem with leaking required the whole fountain be rebuilt. I also recall that the bus’ momentary stop in front of the drug store in Cliffside to take on or let off passengers was later replaced by a real bus station located in the end of the former mill warehouses just past the gatehouse, and that it had totally separate waiting rooms for whites and blacks.
We did not use the words “blacks” or “Afro-Americans” when we were children, but when referring to race, used what was viewed at that time as the more respectful terms “Colored” and later “Negro,” carefully pronouncing it “knee-grow” so it would not to be confused with the “N” word, which was one of a list of words called “Bad Words” that we were not allowed to use. This list also included dam unless we referred to what was used to pond up a river or stream, and hell unless you were talking about not wanting to go there. Since I felt no dislike for or prejudice toward anyone because they were not the same color I was, I guess I just assumed that their living in a separate part of town and going to their own schools was just because they wanted to do so, and did not think of it further.
I knew that Blacks went to the Pastime Theater (Later renamed The Grace Theater) rather than to the Romina, and that they sat separately in the balcony. I thought it would be fun to sit up that high, but the one time I tried to lead my brother up the stairs to do so, I was called back by a stern-voiced man who told me I was not allowed to sit up there. We came back down and sat downstairs, but felt it was unfair. Why were some people who bought a ticket allowed to sit up high in the balcony, when we bought a ticket just like them and could not?
The Grace Theater, located on the South side of Main Street east of McBrayer Furniture, was across the street from the Romina, and a few doors further east. It had previously been named the Pastime Theater, and had been renamed the Grace Theater before I ever saw a movie there. I later learned that the theater had originally been Horn’s Theater, owned by one of the Horn Brothers who operated Horn’s Cash Store. When I last noticed, about 2010, the entry to a store then occupying the former theater building still bore the tiled word “Horn’s.”
The Grace Theater showed mostly second-run or “B” movies. I recall being warned by someone in my class at Forest City Elementary School that I should not go to the Grace Theater because black people sitting in the balcony would pour cokes and drop popcorn on your head just for spite. I did go there a few times after I was a teen when a particular movie that I wanted to see was showing, but had nothing dropped on my head.
Many years later, James Willis Griffin, Jr. , who had taken over running the theaters from his father, closed first the Grace and then the Romina theaters and built the new Griffin Theater on West Main Street, across from the First Baptist Church. While I attended the Griffin Theater frequently, the Carolina Theater in Spindale and the Sylvan Theater in Rutherfordton a few times with friends, none have a place in my memories like the Romina. After all, the Romina was where I first recall seeing any movie and where I was held in suspense by the serials (Continueds) each Saturday morning, and where I would eventually meet my future husband.
In late 1999 and early 2000, following two mergers of the bank at which I was a Customer Service Representative, J.W. Griffin, Jr. became one of my bank customers. Whenever he came in, we would mix his banking needs with our reminiscences about the 1940s, 1950s, and the Theaters. He told me his family was originally from Robeson County, NC, and that he had served in the Navy aboard the USS Suffolk during WWII. He was first married to Marjorie Padgett Griffin with whom he had three sons, James Willis Griffin III, Mark King Griffin, and Gary Thomas Griffin, and a daughter, Melinda Griffin (Peterson). Many years after his wife died, he married Marilyn Gamble, who ran a florist shop on West Main Street. He told me the Pastime Theater had been damaged by a fire, and when it was repaired, it reopened as the Grace Theater, named for his Mother, Alice Grace Cloninger Griffin. He still had a few tickets to the Romina Theater, and gave me one as a souvenir. Mr. Griffin died at age 80 on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2001, just after I retired from the bank.