Monday, August 25, 2014

The Temple Theatre and a civil rights lawsuit

The three-story Temple Building shows up here just beyond the Ritz in a photo taken in 1929 or early 1930, just before fire destroyed the Temple and gutted the brand new Ritz.

Goats are enjoying a renaissance in the south of Iowa, what with artisan cheese and all, so it was interesting to read the other day in The Chariton Leader of May 20, 1909, that their talents had been long appreciated. 

Editor and publisher Henry Gittinger had attended a performance at the Temple Theatre during the previous week and was able to report that, "The Temple Theatre, on the south side, had some exceptionally strong attractions at the last program. Last week the educated goats elicited great interest. This was the first exhibition of the kind ever seen in Chariton. It is said goats are very stubborn and hard to teach but this herd would do all manner of feats, such as walking tight ropes, rolling balls up inclines and back, forming tableaux, etc."

"The management of late have also been happy in its selection of films for the motion picture features and new attractions come with each change of program," Gittinger continued. "The theatre is large and well ventilated, which adds to the comfort of the audience. They have a new scenic curtain, which gives a tinge of realism to the aspect and which also represents some of the local enterprise of the city."

What's far more interesting about the Temple than its entertainment offerings, however, is that it was the setting for an incident that led to Lucas County's first civil rights lawsuit.

The Temple was located on the first floor of the three-story Temple Building, built jointly during 1902-1903 by Victoria (Branner) Dewey and the Knights of Pynthias on the current Court Street site of Hammer Medical Supply. The Temple burned during 1930. It had been designed by the same architects responsible for the recently burned Younkers Building in downtown Des Moines --- Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen.

J.L.H. Todd, of Des Moines, and P.G. Skaggs of Eureka Springs, Missouri, had leased the first floor of the building and opened the new Temple Theatre to the public on April 14, 1909.

Their tenure in Chariton was short-lived, however, most likely because they ran head-on into Iowa civil rights law. Todd, as The Chariton Patriot later described him, was "a southerner, a Virginian, and he has a rigid rule in his theatre against colored people mixing in with whites."

Some time before Henry viewed the educated goats, Chariton resident George "Shock" Knox "purchased a ticket and went into the threatre and took a seat in the audience," Gittinger reported in The Leader of May 13. "As he is supposed to be a negro he was asked to take a seat in that part of the room assigned to colored people. This he refused to do when an officer went to him and asked him to retire from the room, which he did."

Knox promptly filed suit against Todd and Skaggs, asking for $1,000 in damages and citing Iowa's 1884 civil rights act which expressely outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and other factors by a variety of businesses offering public accommodation, including theaters. So far as I know, this was the first civil rights case filed in Lucas County. Knox was represented by attorneys J.H. Campbell and E.H. Storie.

It's not clear what the outcome of the Knox suit was. Todd and Skaggs high-tailed it out of town during June, having sold the theater to Walter Dewey, son of building owner Victoria, and his business partner at the time, R.G. Hatcher. Most likely some sort of settlement had been reached.

It is clear, however, when reading these old Chariton newspapers, that their editors and publishers hardly were advocates for equality. There seems to have been a general acknowledgement that discrimination was justifiably illegal, but no indication that these influential men felt Chariton's black residents were in any sense equal.

Gittinger could be horrifically racist in his writings, for example, when he chose to be. Perhaps his most annoying parlor trick was to compose and publish doggerel about events involving black people in what he imagined black dialect might be. 

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