Civil Rights in Columbia

May 6, 2013

Theater where African-Americans could go freely

It was a regular gathering spot for movies as well as for the weekly talent shows patterned after the famous “Amateur Hour” in Harlem.

It was a regular gathering spot for movies as well as for the weekly talent shows patterned after the famous “Amateur Hour” in Harlem.

And for young African-Americans growing up in Columbia, the old Carver Theater served as one of two movie theaters exclusively for black residents.

The theater, built in 1941 at 1519 Harden St., shared that distinction until the Capitol Theatre was demolished at 1017 Washington St., leaving Carver the only motion picture theater where African-Americans could freely go to the movies, according to the S.C. Department of Archives and History

“For African-Americans who grew up in Columbia between World War II and the mid-1960s, the Carver Theatre stands out as a vibrant community institution,” said Bobby Donaldson, University of South Carolina associate history professor and faculty principal for Preston Residential College. “During the Jim Crow era, Carver provided an alternative space where young people and adults could enjoy entertainment without enduring the indignities of racial segregation.”

Surrounded by the Waverly neighborhood, Allen University and Benedict College, Carver was in the hub of a dynamic African-American business district and was especially popular with Allen and Benedict students.

Donaldson said in addition to showing movies, Carver became a gathering place for organizations and for young couples to go on dates. Children looked forward to entertaining Saturday morning programs, and high school and college students enjoyed talent nights and variety shows hosted by the “Jive Town Man” James Payne.

Carver closed in 1971, and the former Dixie Amusement Company-owned property has since been put to alternative uses, including as a church, according to Historic Columbia Foundation. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Ultimately, the legacy of the Carver speaks to two major aspects of our past,” said John M. Sherrer III, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia Foundation. “Certainly it speaks to the years in which segregation created duplicate, though not necessarily equal, infrastructure within black and white communities found within the city limits. But, on a larger scale, it speaks to the centrality of movie theaters to recreational interests nationally during the 20th century.”

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