Protest at the Circle Theater (1943)

 

Earl Blanc (newspaper photo) 1943

This is a story of a community coming together to fight injustice in their own small but very important way. It takes place in the 7th Ward of New Orleans after neighbors learned of the mistreatment administered to one of their own young men at the Circle Theater on Friday night, June 17, 1943. I will tell the story as it was reported in both the New Orleans and Chicago newspapers a few days after the event.

On a warm Friday evening, as Earl Blanc entered the colored section of the Circle Theater, he stopped  momentarily in the aisle to talk to one of his cousins who had tickets to give to him for a dance.  While in a stooped position, Blanc said that one of the white theater ushers demanded that he move on. Suddenly, the usher pushed him and raised a searchlight to strike him since he was not moving fast enough. Earl immediately struck the usher in self defense.

In the midst of all of this, another usher and a city policeman, who were stationed at the theater, ran forward and hustled him off to a private room on the first floor.  While he was being searched, Blanc said that the  policeman slapped him five times as his hands were raised in the air. A few seconds later, Mr. Goldberg, (the manager) came in and began slapping him also. At this point, Father Harry J. Maloney of Corpus Christi Parish, arrived in the room and asked that Blanc not be hit any more since he was not in the best of health.

After getting into the patrol wagon, Earl Blanc stated that the cop told him he was going to see to it that he would get a personal whipping when he got to the 5th Precinct. Fortunately, five minutes after he arrived at the jail, Father Maloney called and had him paroled.

Four days later, Tuesday,22 June 1943, the downtown citizens of the 7th Ward held a mass protest meeting inside the Autocrat Club. As irate residents voiced their opinions and drew up a plan of action, the NAACP (under the leadership of Mr. Daniel E. Byrd) took action by sending the following letter to Mr. J.A. Dicharry, a co-owner of the Circle Theater.

Dear Mr. Dicharry:

“There have been several complaints reaching our organization concerning the treatment afforded our people at the Circle Theater. The most recent one was the cowardly attack upon Earl Barnes, 2236 Aubry Street, by the manager, A. Goldberg, two white ushers and city policemen, which occurred on Friday, June 17, 1943 about 8p.m.

Since the time when white ushers were put in the Negro section of the theater there has been some trouble. If Negroes did not attend the theater there would be no need for ushers, and Negroes are tired of spending their money to be abused and slapped around.

Blanc, Earl- Xavier University (1943)

Earl Blanc as a basketball player at X.U. (1943)

Mr. Goldberg, your manager evidently has in mind some tactics Hitler practiced upon his downtrodden people by slapping this young man, who is sick and subject to epileptic fit.  The events leading up to this occurrence are ridiculous since it involved a young boy weighing less than 90 pounds and a six-foot white usher and policeman. This is a boy whose physical constitution could not permit him to assault anyone. A group of citizens residing in the 7th Ward have registered a vigorous protest to the treatment afforded this boy by the manager, ushers involved, and the policeman you have stationed there to keep order.

If the policy of this theater is to have such employees, then my organization is forced to use all of its resources to encourage our people to stay out, keep out, and let the manager and the usher keep the empty seats in your colored section compartment.”

In addition to this  letter, the 7th Ward Civic League drew up a resolution demanding that the management of the theater: (1) acknowledge the mistake to Mr. Blanc for the abusive treatment which he had received; (2) demand that Blanc’s claims for damages be recognized; (3) discharge all white employees of the theater who were implicated in the affair;  and (4) replace white personnel in the Circle Theater who were in the Negro section with Negro personnel. 

Within a few days, the management of the Circle Theater acceded to the demands of the committee acting in behalf of Earl Blanc. On Friday evening, the committee met in front of the theater and informed the public that their demands had been met. 

Earl Blanc continued to live for the next 66 years after this incident. Whether or not he told this story in future years is unknown. He was better known as “Uncle Earl” to his many nieces, nephews, friends and relatives.

He was born to Augusta Llado and Henry Blanc Sr. of New Orleans and had eight siblings: Henry, Novida, Leo, Clifton, Clarence, Marguerite, Henrietta, and Louis Blanc. He graduated from Corpus Christi School, Xavier Prep, and attended Xavier University. He was a star basketball player in both high school and college (see here). He became the ‘top man’ in the acrobatic team of “Bob & Earl” where he performed throughout the Midwest, Northwest and Canada. He moved to Chicago and later became an athletic instructor at the YMCA and a Recreation Director at Jackson Park in Chicago.

Eventually, he moved back to the city of his birth and became the gym supervisor at Dillard University. After retirement “Uncle Earl” spent time fishing, watching sports, woodcarving, making mosaics and jewelry. He loved New Orleans’ festivals, especially those involving music and food. He passed away on July 22, 2009 and, of course, he was buried from Corpus Christi Catholic Church five days later.

Sources:  The Chicago Defender, 03 July 1943 p.6, col.4 + 10 July 1943 p.8, col.2; The Louisiana Weekly, 26 June 1943 p.1; The Times-Picayune, 26 July 2009 (obituary section); photo from Xavier University’s Archives & Special Collection

Lolita V. Cherrie

8 thoughts on “Protest at the Circle Theater (1943)

  1. I know the family very well. Uncle Earl maintained a well built body for many years, when he returned to New Orleans. Every time I pass the house, I look for him sitting out. I did not know he passed away. Thank you for finding and sharing.

  2. I was 4 years old when that incident occurred and by the time I was of age I recall that all employees at the circle were Blacks. I especially remember Ms Alma, who collected tickets from the customers and also worked in the cafeteria at Corpus Christi and often was the source of free passes to the movies. Also, though I can’t recall his name, I fondly remember the big black man who ushered and maintained order in the theater.

  3. Llolita, thank you for the Circle Theater post. Earl Blanc was one of my mother’s younger brothers. I do not recall hearing about this incident growing up. I do know that Uncle Earl had an epileptic condition. It’s interesting that he is referred to as a boy. In July 1943 he celebrated his 21st birthday. The affects of this incident could be one of the reasons that he worked so hard at body building. I have some fond memories of him lifting us up above his head and teaching us to balance on his hand. I was in awe of his muscles and strength. His passing in 2009 is greatly mourned by all of his nephews and nieces.

    • Thank you for sharing such great memories of your “Uncle Earl” with us, Diane. I did not think many of the younger members of his family had heard this story and this is one of the reasons I wanted to share it with all of you….Lolita

  4. Corrections to above comments: Earl Blanc had 8 siblings, Clarence, Novilda, Marguerite, Henry, Henrietta (still living in L.A.) Leo, Clifton (also still living in L.A.) and Louis. He performed as the “top man” in the acrobatic team of “Bob and Earl”

    Uncle Earl’s Nephew Willis L. Rey, Jr. son of Marguerite

  5. My wife tells me she attended the COLOR section there. I lived where the CARVER theatre existed and was for COLOR only! When it was opened it looked liked the best theater in town. This was 1949.

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