Alexandria History – When Recreation was Segregated

It wasn’t long ago that summer pastime activities varied in experience, depending on whether you were black or white. Read and learn about this history.

A parade passes the old Capitol Theater (date unknown). (Photo: Office of Historic Alexandria archives)

By the Office of Historic Alexandria

Alexandria, VA – As summer stretches on, it is normal to reminisce about our favorite summer pastimes. Swimming, amusement parks, and traveling are activities many of us miss. It wasn’t long ago that these activities varied in experience, depending on whether you were black or white.

For example, there were no municipal pools for African Americans in Alexandria until 1952, which meant that those who wanted to swim often swam in the Potomac River or Hunting Creek, sometimes with tragic consequences. There was only one movie theater that catered to an African American clientele before the 1960s. But despite this structural racism, African American residents and business owners in Alexandria found ways to succeed and sometimes thrive.

Before the 1950s, Alexandria had a municipal pool for white residents, but African American residents often swam in the Potomac River or Hunting Creek. Then the City began once a week transportation to a swimming pool in Washington, D.C. This wasn’t enough for some residents since they could walk two or three blocks and swim in the Potomac or Hunting Creek. The result was seemingly inevitable accidents and drownings that took place more than once.

One incident claimed the lives of brothers Morris Leroy Johnson, 11, and Lonnie Richard Johnson, 9. The tragedy outraged African American and white residents who convinced the City to open a segregated swimming pool in 1952. Today, it has been proposed that the pool at Charles Houston Recreation Center be renamed Memorial Pool to remember the Johnsons and other African American residents who died because there was no pool where they could swim safely.

Even the movie theater experience was differed based on race. In fall 1920, in spite of protests, Harry Bramow was issued a permit to enlarge an existing structure at 1101 Queen Street as a theater for “moving pictures.” Soon after, it opened as the Lincoln Theater and, in spring 1921, featured the silent film Symbol of the Unconquered, written, directed, and produced by Oscar Micheaux in response to Birth of a Nation.

Around 1930, Abe Lichtman took over the theater, one of several he owned that served the black community in the metropolitan area, and renamed it the Olympic. The Olympic closed in 1932, but soon a new operator, Harry Wasserman, took over. Wasserman reopened the old theater as the Capitol in 1933 and some six years later, built a new theater on the same site.

Designed by theater architect John J. Zink, the new Capitol Theatre faced the corner of Queen and North Henry Streets with a stainless steel canopy over the ticket window and doors. The Art Deco-inspired building was mostly covered with yellow brick, and had contrasting courses of red at the second level and just above the roof. The Capitol was the only theater in Alexandria serving African Americans until 1948, when the Carver Theater opened at Queen and North Fayette Streets.

The Capitol became a pool hall and amusement center around 1950, at about the time this photo of a parade was taken. The pool hall remained open through the 1960s, and in the 70s it became home to Sykes Warehouse, an automotive parts business. New owners completed the renovation of it in 2008 and today the property is used for offices and retail space.

Racial segregation permeated so many aspects of life in Alexandria. Despite a system stacking the deck against African American residents and business owners, they carved out ways to find success even if the success was fleeting. Today, you can see the results of the hard work recent residents in Alexandria have put in to acknowledge and recognize those who carved a place for themselves and others like them in a time that seems so different from the one we live in today.

ICYMI: New Documentary: Dollhouses Depict Segregated Alexandria

2 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, the racial situation was pretty bad 70 years ago. So glad it has improved so much. Too bad that in the last 15 or so years it has gone backwards.

  2. I was born and raised in Alexandria I do remember the Carver Theater as well as not being able to utilize the swimming pool I know longer live in Alexandria but by my driving thru I have notice a lot of regenttrfication especially in areas were blacks owned there homes.

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