Wichita may be north of the Mason-Dixon line, but the City didn’t miss its share of early 20th-century segregation and racism. In Wichita, if Black people attended a movie, they sat in the balcony. If the theater didn’t have a balcony, that was comparable to a “Whites only” sign.
That changed in August 1941, when the Dunbar Theatre opened at 1007 N. Cleveland, in the heart of Wichita’s African-American community. Named for African-American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, the 467-person capacity Dunbar Theatre not only gave a positive alternative to being discriminated against, but it had state-of-the-art furnishings.
The Friday, August 15, 1941, issue of The Wichita Eagle provided extensive coverage of the Dunbar Theatre’s official opening. Readers were told that the facility, leased by American Enterprises, Inc., featured “the most modern equipment attainable…including [the] newest sound and projection equipment.” Moreover, “luxurious seats have been installed for the comfort of patrons, and year round air conditioning also was installed.”
Oddly, the theater’s manager and projectionist “will be the only White persons employed at the theater,” with the rest of the personnel being Black. How long this lasted, we don’t know.
Ninth Street and Cleveland was buzzing with activity as the next “new thing,” as the former Black business core – located in the 500-600 block of North Main St. – began to lose its luster. In the area of the theater, there were professional offices, a grocery, and a drugstore/soda fountain, and some of the finest homes in the City owned by Black people.
As Wichita’s aviation business grew with demand for planes during World War II and afterward for commercial flight, the city’s African American community grew, with workers attracted by the good-paying careers offered in the factories.
Black Theater, Black Movies
The economic rise of African Americans around the country provided a market for movies starring Black people. Beyond two major musicals – “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” – the big Hollywood studios had only casts Blacks as bystanders, servants, maids or maybe sidekicks.
Some independent producers realized there was a demand that was not being met for what were called “race films” or films with Black leads.
Oscar Micheaux, an African American with Kansas connections, began making Black-focused movies in the 1920s that addressed important issues but were “downers” that didn’t bring in much money. “Harlem on the Prairie” (1937), a Western with big-band singer Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy, was an entertaining film that proved successful.
Black cinema of the era that would have been shown at the Dunbar included musicals, comedies, dramas, crime and religious movies – everything Hollywood offered but made on a lower budget. Classics of the genre include a number of films made independently by a former Hollywood extra named Spencer Williams: “Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA,” “Beale Street Mama,” “Jivin’ in Bebop,” and “Juke Joint.”
When the Dunbar wasn’t showing movies, it was playing host to nationally touring performers like bandleader Count Basie and comedian Pigmeat Markham, and was also rented out for functions. With a lack of facilities open for African Americans to rent for meeting, banquets and other gatherings, the Dunbar proved to be a great venue for community events like parties, meetings and regional conventions.
Here Comes Integration
Beginning in the late 1950s, the gradual disappearance of overt racial bias in Wichita posed a distinct challenge to the Dunbar Theatre. Other local movie theaters, which had practiced blatant racial discrimination, now accorded Blacks the same respect as White moviegoers. Similarly, meeting spaces outside of Wichita’s African-American community slowly began to welcome Black organizations seeking to hold events.
Although the Dunbar helped sustain Black Wichita during the heyday of American apartheid, it soon became an after-thought to local African Americans seeking to take advantage of their newfound socio-economic mobility. The Dunbar closed as a traditional movie theater in 1963.
By the 1970s, it started a second life as the headquarters of Wichita’s Nation of Islam community. The December 1973 issue of the magazine 67214, in its directory of Wichita’s Black churches, noted that the old Dunbar Theatre had become known as Muhammad’s Temple of Islam.
After the Nation of Islam left the Dunbar, date unknown, the building that had been the heart of Wichita’s African American community fell into a downward spiral of neglect. Around it, the neighborhood also fell into disrepair and most of the other businesses closed. Turner’s Corner Drug, next door to the Dunbar, managed to survive until 1990.
By that same year, the Dunbar had been added to Wichita’s list of condemned buildings and was set for demolition. Its status was noticed by Cheryl McAfee, at that time a member of the city’s Board of Code Standards and Appeals and whose family had been part of the city’s African-American community for decades. Through her advocacy, the Dunbar Theatre was removed from the roll of condemned buildings.
“When I saw the Dunbar was on the list to be condemned, I started shaking,” she told The Wichita Eagle. “For a long time, it was the only theater where Black people could go … It should be taken off [the list of condemned buildings] for its historical significance to the community and used as a catalyst for redeveloping the neighborhood.”
In the almost 30 years since then, the redevelopment is taking shape thanks to a number of groups and people such as POWER Community Development Corporation and its executive director James Abertha, the City of Wichita and its Housing and Community Services Department, along with former Wichita City Councilwoman Lavonta Williams.
Last summer, an outside wall of the Dunbar was rejuvenated with a mural of entertainers Hattie McDaniel, Richard Pryor and Moms Mabley, painted by local artist Priscella Brown as part of the Horizontes Project that has beautified a number of outdoor spaces in the surrounding area.
As for full renovations, Dunbar boosters are hoping to be done by late 2020 to reopen the theater as a venue with an African-American focus.