I’m becoming a sap for memories I never had.
Maybe it’s because after growing up the son of a history buff, I’m one myself, hoping to pass on the love of studying the past to my own kids. Maybe it’s because my wife and I are turning into classic movie lovers, whose DVR is filled nearly to capacity with films decades older than either of us. Whatever the reason, I think I’ll always remember the night last September when The Capitol Theatre’s marquee came to life again in its colorful glow.
That night was filled with sights, smells and sounds from a past I wasn’t even alive to recall, the most iconic being the sight of The Capitol’s marquee dazzling and alight as it had been decades before. I was transfixed.
But, watching those neon-impersonating LEDs blaze that night, I couldn’t help but shake the thought of another memory that, since moving to Greeneville to work for the Sun, I had also heard of but had never lived through. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday rouses the thoughts again.
Staring across South Main Street at the front of The Capitol from the Greene County Courthouse, you can now see, to the left of the main entrance, a door painted gray, blending with the rest of the exterior.
While many Greene County kids of the 1950s and ‘60s enjoyed The Capitol from the main floor seating, it was through that now gray door that Jerleen Manuel, Gene Maddox and any other black kids had to go through to get their seats — in the balcony.
“The balcony was always reserved for the non-whites,” Maddox told me last year when recalling the Saturday mornings he spent there, watching “The Lone Ranger” and other westerns of his youth.
While those days of movie tickets and popcorn costing dimes and nickels seems like a long time ago, we ought to remember it’s only been a couple generations since little black boys and girls couldn’t go in the same doors as their white peers, or sit in the same seats.
“We had to go across the street if we wanted to use the bathroom,” Manuel said.
She remembers having to leave the theater, walk across the street and past the Greene County Courthouse, down an unlit alley and use facilities marked as being for “coloreds.”
The thought of sitting in a different section or getting your popcorn from a different part of the theater is completely foreign to people like me who didn’t grow up before the mid 1960s.
But it was normal to kids like Maddox and Manuel.
“We enjoyed the movies,” Maddox said. “You’re kids, so you’re going to make the best of it.”
Until the mid ‘60s, that was just part of life at theaters, stadiums, schools and any other public place.
Maddox said when he had a tonsillectomy at age 7, he and other black patients were housed in the basement of the hospital.
I asked Maddox and Manuel how all this affected their friendships and social interactions — whether they were picked on or bullied by white kids.
Greene County, unlike a lot of the places in newsreel footage we see today, was mostly quiet. Manuel said, “Out in the county, where I grew up, blacks and whites were together a lot.”
Maddox, who grew up inside Greeneville’s city limits, said he had white friends, but there was always something that wasn’t quite right.
“We maintained a friendship,” he said. “But there was always that separation that we were made to feel was natural.”
He was quick to point out that before school integration, black and white kids shared facilities for summer schools, and there were never any problems.
Both Maddox and Manuel praise how far we’ve come as a society in the 50 years since they last were forced to sit in a different part of The Capitol or attend a wholly different school. But, even as this year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, we have farther to go, they say.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” Maddox said. “I enjoy the things we enjoy, but I know there are things we need to improve. We need to grow.”
He worries about what he calls de facto segregation, especially in schools, where races aren’t forced to segregate because of public policy, but rather because people just choose not to associate with anyone different than themselves.
I share that fear too. With our tribal-ized, social-media driven culture, I fear such de facto segregation will transcend race and extend itself into the innumerable ways we can fracture from one another, growing unable to empathize with anyone not like us.
Imagining myself as a little boy having to walk up a different set of stairs to a different set of seats to watch the same film as my peers is what The Capitol lighting up again brought to mind that night last year.
Though it’s a memory I’ll never have myself — especially on days like Monday — I think we all need to remember we’re not that far from a day when that was reality for many of us.
Just because that extra door has been painted gray and fades into the rest of The Capitol’s exterior doesn’t mean those memories will — or should — do the same.