Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Public entertainment and segregated audiences

Turner describes theater-going in Durham as a segregated city for much of the twentieth century. Having previously described social gatherings for African Americans, Turner turns to a discussion of public entertainment. In particular, Turner recalls that when performers such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and child prodigy Philippa Schuyler (daughter of <cite>Pittsburgh Courier</cite> editor George Schuyler) performed, tickets were sold to both black and white patrons, although the audience itself was often segregated.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER WEARE:
What about Duke Ellington or Count Basie?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes
WALTER WEARE:
All of those?
VIOLA TURNER:
They have all been here. But many of them were brought here at times when we had a young man—I suppose he had to make money out of it some way or other. But he would bring the big bands in here and they would either be at that Civic Center or at one of these warehouses. That was back at the time when I was talking about Miller and Lyle were here. But Duke Ellington, Count Basie, another man who came along right about at the same time .
WALTER WEARE:
Louis Armstrong, was he here?
VIOLA TURNER:
No, I don't ever recall Louis being here. Unless he was brought here when a couple of things have come here to the Center Theatre. But I don't remember Louis Armstrong ever being here. And I've known about him for nearly all of his existence. But I don't think he was ever here. But there was another band man who came along about the same time as Count Basie. I can see the man, you know, picture him, but I can't think of his name, now. But any rate, virtually all of the big bands have been here one time or other.
WALTER WEARE:
Now, at this Civic Center, would that be whites and blacks?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yes. It's used by both whites and blacks. I don't think I've ever known of any time when they did anything together. And yet, I don't think there's ever been a time when blacks couldn't observe from the balcony or whites couldn't observe from the balcony. For instance, you're having something downstairs and I don't think there was ever any prohibition that you could not let people go upstairs and watch. But that's just in my mind. I don't recall.
WALTER WEARE:
When Mobile Sisal was here, you're suggesting that maybe whites sat upstairs and blacks downstairs?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, no, no. Let me see if I can figure about that. I'm not suggesting that, but I am saying this: very likely that happened and there would have been no objection to it happening. But I don't know that it did happen in that specific case. Because that was a situation that was handled so closely by a group that we had all of the tickets. You see, it was something we had gone on the line to furnish the pay. And it was our individual effort—like a club. So, unless we sold you a ticket, there would not have been any way for you to be there. I can't tell you that we didn't sell some white tickets; we probably did. I don't know whether we did or not, but we probably did, and if we did, those people could come and would have no problem coming. I don't remember the whole thing enough to say that is what happened in that instance. But I do know this, that many of the efforts that were efforts initiated by Bess or some of our club groups—and always Bess was in that sort of thing, because she had more of this spirit of adventure to venture out and pay. And we agreed to pay somebody two thousand dollars to come here, without a dime. Because we believed we could do it, you know. She was the kind of person who could say—I don't know if you ever heard of Philippa Schuyler?
WALTER WEARE:
Oh, yes.
VIOLA TURNER:
VIOLA A child prodigy. Well, we brought her here. And she and her mother stayed at Bess's house. As you know, Mrs. Schuyler was white.
WALTER WEARE:
This is the wife of George Schuyler? Editor of the Pittsburgh Courier?
VIOLA TURNER:
That's right. That's the man, and the woman. Well, you know, she was a Texas woman. Well, she stayed right at Bess's house. Well, I feel very sure that we sold tickets to both white and black for that. And I think—my problem is remembering where these various things were; we did so many of those sort of things back then at certain times. I don't recall now whether that was at the Ben Duke Auditorium, or it could've been at the Center Theatre.
WALTER WEARE:
What intrigues me is that whites and blacks were attending the same event.
VIOLA TURNER:
There was no separation.
WALTER WEARE:
They would not segregate the whites?
VIOLA TURNER:
No. If we had something, which we had many of, and we sold tickets. If we had it, we had to sell tickets, because that's the way we'd raise the money. Ours was usually for scholarships or one of these sort of things. And if we had white friends, ‘would you like to buy tickets to this; we're going to bring so-and-so’. If they were sold tickets, they came to the audience just like anybody else, and sat anywhere. If they came down here, they always did that at Ben Duke Auditorium. Anything we ever gave at the Center Theatre: the same thing was true. The reason the question is coming into your mind: if things came to these warehouses, and the things that went to the Civic Center, that were not sponsored by a club or some group, was sponsored by an individual. And, no doubt, the individual made money out of it. I never knew how those things ran. I knew the man who brought a lot of the things there, named Leif Austin. But I'm quite sure that there had to be some way he was making money out of doing it, if it was a success. Well, now, what happened there: he advertised that so-and-so will be here on such-and-such a time; tickets will be available at the door, at the drugstore, at this place or that place. Now, you went there and you bought your ticket. If you were white and you wanted to go to a black thing, you went there and bought your ticket. If you were black and you wanted to go to a white thing, you went and bought tickets. But at that time, I feel very sure, that if you were black and you wanted to buy something to see a white one, you bought a ticket that sat you in the gallery. You didn't get a ticket that put you down on the dance floor. I feel very sure that's true. I never did it. I'm just telling you that's what the time had demanded. I don't think any blacks would've bought tickets and gone down there to dance on the dance floor without anticipating some problem. On the other hand, very likely—no I can't say that. If whites had tried to do it at a black affair, they would have had just as much trouble, if they had tried to walk down there and dance. Because there would have been some of us that would say, ‘What are you doing down here?’ And that would have been it. But I don't think either would have had any trouble going up and sitting in the balcony to look at what's going on. And I did go on the balcony on two occasions that I know of. However, I think they were black performers that I went, in both cases. But I do know this: people did go to the balcony. But they were public affairs. Our affairs, like I said, that we brought, like Philippa Schuyler—we brought Roland Hayes here years ago; we brought Mobile Sisal's band and many things I'm sure I'm sure that I'm forgetting. Because we had a project nearly every year, of that sort of thing. But when they brought here, the tickets were in our hands; we put the tickets out. We did not discriminate against them, but we wanted the right kind of audience always.