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Growing up in the 1950s, William Bell had to enter Birmingham’s segregated Lyric Theatre though a side entrance, marked “COLORED,” that was walled-off from the elegant lobby. He climbed a dimly lit stairwell to watch movies from the steep balcony where black patrons had to sit for generations.
Now the mayor of Birmingham, Bell recalls the Lyric’s beauty, but also the way it isolated black people.
The inequity built into The Lyric Theatre’s very architecture is a painful reminder of the city’s ugly past as one of the most segregated places in America. But it also serves as a living history lesson, a symbol of how the Deep South has changed since the courts ended discriminatory Jim Crow laws.
Preservationists had to decide whether to keep reminders of The Lyric’s discarded color line before they unveiled an $11 million restoration of the 102-year-old theater, which had been closed for decades. In this case, they chose to highlight the history, installing a glass door etched with the words “Historic Colored Entrance” in the lobby wall, so that patrons can peer into the past.
Across the South, people are struggling with similar questions: What does a changing region do with the vestiges of back-alley service windows, segregated waiting rooms, dual water fountains and abandoned schools that once formed the skeleton of a society built on oppression? […]