Integrating Ford's

A. Robert Kaufman

September 17, 1993|By A. Robert Kaufman

LONG before there was such a thing as a civil rights "movement" -- indeed, before Baltimore's first elected black mayor was born, a small group of citizens began picketing to integrate the city's only legitimate theater.

African-Americans could buy tickets at Ford's Theater (owned by the same Morris Mechanic whose name now graces the Mechanic Theater) only in the second balcony -- from the last row forward.

In 1947, Ingrid Bergman, starring in George Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan," refused to appear on stage at Mechanic's National Theater in Washington because it had a similar policy. The NAACP in Washington set up a picket line. It asked the Baltimore branch to do likewise. Thus began a long struggle to integrate Ford's.

Audiences at every performance at Ford's (six nights a week and two matinees) were silently challenged by pickets carrying signs asking them to boycott the theater. Sometimes it was a single picket -- Don Altwood or Adah Jenkins. But we didn't miss a single performance.

Altwood was a middle-aged white man who gave up a promising career as a Social Security administrator to become the director of Fellowship House. Jenkins was a homemaker, piano teacher (the Afro-American's music critic) and the person who prodded, pushed, badgered and gave me no peace until she got me to take on the organizational responsibilities I didn't want.

I first heard about the struggle as a 10th-grader, when two other Park School students and I attended a meeting at Fellowship House on a Sunday in 1947 to create Baltimore's first interracial, interfaith youth group. The following Friday, my classmate, Larry Atkins, told me he had decided to join the picket line for Saturday's matinee. He asked if I would join him.

I'd been mouthing off about racial injustice for a long time. But as a 16-year-old kid from an upper-middle-class Jewish family, I'd never considered such a radical thing as picketing a theater. But to back down was to demonstrate cowardice, so I joined my classmate. Before long I'd advanced to captain of the picket line every Saturday afternoon.

On a regular basis I'd see schoolmates and their parents cross my line. (This caused a little friction at school.) But my teachers respected the boycott.

Regulars on the line, along with Altwood and Jenkins, were the entire Mitchell clan -- Parren Mitchell, Lillie Jackson, Juanita, Clarence Jr. and often their children. Other pickets included several young people from the Progressive Party, merchant seamen from the Pilots Union and a white women I knew only as "Mrs. Miller," who was in her 80s.

Adah Jenkins and I began writing the actors and playwrights requesting them to respect our picket line. Before long we were getting letters and telegrams of support from theater people like Jose Ferrer, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

We tried to interest the media, but, besides the Afro, which covered the struggle thoroughly, Baltimore media ignored us. There was no TV yet, no talk radio. The News-Post, Sun and Evening Sun wouldn't give us the time of day.

About halfway through the campaign, Charles Boyer was to appear at Ford's in a play called "Red Gloves." He sent us a telegram, followed by a letter, discussing his frustration. He said he found segregation appalling but felt that he couldn't break his contract. He even telephoned me when he got to town and promised to at least make a public statement denouncing segregation in public accommodations. (My mother swooned on the extension line.)

That Sunday night Drew Pearson, probably America's most listened-to and respected radio commentator, told the world that Charles Boyer would not have played Baltimore had he known Ford's Theater was segregated. Moreover, he would never play Ford's or any other segregated theater again.

As the years rolled by, Ford's was able to attract fewer and fewer plays. In the final year of struggle (1952, I think), there were only three plays. Ford's was losing money. We had won, and Morris Mechanic knew it.

Lillie Jackson, NAACP president and grande dame of the Mitchell clan, bought Adah Jenkins and me orchestra seats for Ford's first interracial play, "The Merry Widow." I haven't been to the theater or its successor since.

Breaking the color line at Ford's accomplished two very important things. It demonstrated to the prejudiced white majority that fear of what might happen was nonsense. More important, it proved that the time was right for determined interracial groups to move forward. Picketing, boycotts, sit-ins, jail-ins and freedom rides eventually ended the rigid segregation America had known the entire century.

Baltimore should commission a book and documentary film on )) the city's civil rights struggles. Plaques should be posted at those locations, like Ford's and Gwynn Oak Park, where victories occurred. There should be tributes to Jenkins and Altwood and the Morgan State students who picketed the Northwood Shopping Center to integrate Hecht's restaurant and the Northwood Theater.

Our youth today must know that what freedoms we have were never freely given to us. All were valiantly fought for and bitterly resisted by those who profited from the injustices. Today's young people must know they have a debt to pay to those who secured their freedoms.

A. Robert Kaufman writes from Baltimore.

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