Theatrical and Civil Rights History
Baltimore activists have a long history of fighting discrimination and segregation in the city’s public establishments. In the years after World War II, the NAACP and their allies worked to end segregated seating at Ford’s Theatre on Fayette Street and drew national attention to the fight for equal rights in Baltimore.
Ford's Theatre opened in 1871. It was built by John T. Ford, a Baltimore native, and the owner of the Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. infamous as the site of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Like many other theatres in downtown Baltimore, Ford's enforced a strict policy of racially segregated seating. As early as 1947, Baltimore’s branch of the NAACP began picketing the theatre. At that time, NAACP executive secretary Addison Pinkney stated that the protest had gone on for ”the entire season” and “reduced the average attendance to less than one-half capacity of [the] building.” Unfortunately, theatre management was resistant to changing their discriminatory policies. Protests continued for five years with national and international stars joining the fight. In 1948, celebrated singer and Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson walked a picket line in front of the theatre. In 1951, Basil Rathbone, the British actor famous for playing Sherlock Holmes, declared: “You may depend on my taking a firm stand of disapproval of the segregated theatre in Baltimore and to inform any management to whom I may in future contract myself and the case of any play in which I play.”
By 1950, the protests were hurting the theatre’s bottom line. The theatre, which was operated by United Booking Office Inc. of New York, leased the building from Baltimore theatre mogul Morris Mechanic. By 1950, United Booking Office reported that Ford’s, once one of the most prosperous theatres in the nation, had its box office receipts cut almost in half, attributing the decline to the NAACP protest and to the poor selection of plays.
In 1952, the protest gained another strong ally: Maryland Governor Theodore R. McKeldin. Speaking in early 1952 at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, McKeldin declared that he wanted Ford’s opened to African Americans because they had been “needlessly affronted” by its policies. “We are going to walk together,” he said. “I am an optimist, and we must win. We are going to stop this evil thing.” On February 1, 1952, Ford’s dropped its segregation policies and was finally open to all.
In 1964, the Sun recalled, "Almost every theatrical star from the last century has played there, from James W. Wallack and Maude Adams to Katharine Cornell, and the building has gained a reputation for everything from cats on stage to deer in the balcony and bats in the dressing rooms." Unfortunately, neither theatrical or Civil Rights history could save the three-story theatre from the wrecking ball. The building was torn down in 1964 to make way for the parking garage that stands on the site today.