It is fitting that the last stop on the tour was at the majestic Imperial Theater in Augusta, GA. This 853 seat theater originally opened in 1918 serving as a vaudeville and silent film theater complete with a Wurlitzer organ before it made the transition into “talkies.” It is a beautiful multi level space ornately decorated after the Imperial in New York, but with touches of southern charm.
For me the most poignant moment of my Imperial tour was when I asked what the theatre was like in under Jim Crow segregation. The Imperial director got a knowing gleam in his eye and suggested the projectionist might take me up the outside entrance.
Theaters like all other institutions in the south were segregated until the late 1960’s, the Imperial was no different. I was taken outside to a separate entrance off a side ally way, and led up a set of broad stairs. This entrance long ago closed to visitors, was like stepping through a porthole back in time. As we climbed higher through the thick musty air I could not help but put myself in the steps of those who had been forced by law to come up this staircase to see a movie. Though I must say the black entrance like the rest of the Imperial was quite nice, complete with it’s own ticket window and upstairs bathroom (something rare in those days), it was still a painful reminder of the reality of our recent past. The balcony was the only place African Americans were allowed to see a movie separated from the white audience by a short wall whose remnants can still be seen today.
When we came back to the main lobby after our trip through history, it was a buzz with audience members coming to see the movie. Black, white, young, old all took their seats on the ground floor, and this I think is a metaphor for the best of race relations today and what the civil rights movement achieved. Here we all were, together but with different life experience, yet willing to come, find common ground, exchange ideas all under the watchful shadow of our past, always there to remind us how close we still are to our unjust history.
The screening was like all the others on the tour, wonderful.
Now that I am back in Brooklyn on to the hustle of work and life, I look back with fondness on my time with the tour. It was my goal to reconnect with the south, and amidst the rebel flags, the Waffle Houses, and the increasingly crowed highways, I found many communities moving forward trying to create the beloved community that Dr. King always envisioned. Though we may still have a long way to go, I am reminded that we have come a long way.