Historical Markers
The Dunbar Theatre Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

The Dunbar Theatre

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
South & Broad Streets, Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

A brick theatre house with a large ornate marquis advertising musical acts.
The Lincoln Theater, Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, PA, 1932.
E. C. Brown and Andrew Stevens Jr. were the toast of the black Philadelphia. Their Brown and Stevens Bank on the northeast corner of Broad and Lombard Streets was one of the most successful African-American banks north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Stevens was the only black member of the State Republican Committee, and Brown was president of the largest black realty corporation in New York City.

But they wanted more. Brown still winced when he recalled how Philadelphia's Forrest Theater had refused to let him enter, because he was black. The partners announced the formation of the Dunbar Amusement and their plans to construct the first black-built, black-owned theater in the city of Philadelphia, in July 1918.

Philadelphia was now home to 150,000 African Americans; a race-conscious people, whom the partners were convinced would patronize a theater that offered a higher grade of entertainment than the rough vaudeville and raucous music offered at Gibson's Standard Theatre a few blocks away.

Advertisement for the Dunbar Theater of the Ninety and Nine.
Newspaper ad for The Dunbar Theatre, Philadelphia Tribune , April 16, 1921.
On December 29, 1919, the Dunbar Theatre opened to much fanfare, for it was clearly a monument to black enterprise and "know how." The Dunbar got off to an auspicious start, attracting the Lafayette Theatre group from Harlem, hosting benefits for the NAACP and Marcus Garvey, and providing high-class entertainment for its patrons. Shuffle Along debuted at the Dunbar before becoming the first all-black musical review on Broadway.

But the theater soon floundered. Brown had a hard time finding and booking "first class" entertainments and a surprisingly difficult time getting black Philadelphians to patronize the theater. In 1921, the partners were forced to sell their theater to John T. Gibson, who a year later reopened it as Gibson's Theatre. Now the owner of South Philadelphia's two African-American theaters, Gibson divided acts by their size and magnitude, booking the larger shows at the Dunbar, and smaller shows and musical comedies at the markerStandard.

In the Roaring Twenties Gibson's Theatre offered a venue where black musicians could perform to black audiences, in a black-owned theater. But it wasn't to last. Like so many other theater owners, Gibson went bust at the beginning of the Great Depression, and was forced to sell the theater to white owners who renamed it the Lincoln. In the 1930s and 1940s, it would continue to host many of the country's top African-American entertainers, including Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and the Nicholas brothers, who had gotten their start dancing on the corners of South Street not three blocks away.
Back to Top