Original Document
Original Document
Isadore M. Martin Jr. discusses protests against illegal racial discrimination in Philadelphia during the 1930s.

Isadore Martin: When I was a boy there were two theaters in West Philadelphia. One was known as the Knickerbocker and the other, the Eureka. I never went in either one, because they discriminated. The Negroes would go upstairs or on the side, and I was taught you cannot maintain your self-respect and knowingly do this. We would go downtown to the Royal Theater on South Street. We would go to the Gibson or the Dunbar Theater, or there were one or two theaters in Center City which did not segregate their places, and that was it. Or usually, about four times a year, my father would take us over to New York, and we would see a movie over there….

Charles Hardy: One of the things we mentioned last time was the Equal Rights bill that Hobson Reynolds introduced, in 1934, I guess. And that's something that I find fascinating, that at last, belatedly, Pennsylvania does get an equal rights law.

MARTIN: It was on the books, yeah.

HARDY: What can you tell me about the struggle to get the bill passed?

MARTIN: Well, the N.A.A.C.P. was the one who was behind it. I mean, they pushed the bill. As a matter of fact, they'd been pushing it every session of the legislature, and it did finally get through. [But] it was not particularly observed, especially in Harrisburg….And I remember being at a meeting, with a couple of [African-American] gentlemen who were in the legislature, "Now when you go up, [to Harrisburg] we want you to stay at the Penn Harris Hotel. We want you not to be staying at a colored rooming house." But they stayed at the colored rooming house.

HARDY: The Penn Harris wouldn't put them up?

MARTIN: I think they were evidently told, "Don't go." But of course, the Penn Harris did discriminate. I remember, it was about 1941, my father and I went there [the Penn Harris], to a savings and loan convention, and there was a little something, but we were finally accommodated….

HARDY: Now when the Equal Rights Bill was passed in 1935, I know there was a good deal of testing of that legislation in Philadelphia: sit-ins by interracial groups, through the Quakers. Raymond Pace Alexander going with his friends to different tearooms and restaurants around the city. You were a young man then, active in the N.A.A.C.P. Did you participate in any of these restaurant bustings?

MARTIN: Yes, mine was in the theaters…. The Stanton Theater was owned by the Stanley Company of America, and it originally was the flagship of the group. It was originally known as the Stanley, and then when they built a new one at Nineteenth Street this became the Stanton. And they had a practice of Negroes would sit in the gallery. So together with two friends I went there. One was George Evans, who was the brother of Orrin Evans, the newspaper reporter. George was an art school student. I was just finished Penn, I think, or going to Penn. And we went there, and right behind us was a friend of mine, Paul Binford, who was a dental student. Of course, we were told to go upstairs, and Paul Binford came up. He went downstairs. I mean, he was swarthy complexion.

So I got a warrant out. George and I got a warrant out for the manager of theater. We got his name, and they had a hearing. At first, Austin Norris was the attorney, and I think somebody put some pressure on Aus, and he bowed out, and Bob Nix Senior took over, at the magistrate's hearing. They held them with the Grand Jury, and the Grand Jury blew it out. I didn't understand it then, but now I understand what goes on. I mean, they [reached] someone in the District Attorney's office.

The man who was head of this theater, it was Stanley Warner at the time, had just recently come to Philadelphia from St. Louis. If I'm not correct, it was William Goldman, who later [served] on the Board of Education. A long time supporter of the N.A.A.C.P. and the cause of racial justice was Jacob Belikoff, who was then the director of the Federation of Jewish Charities, and he was a friend of my father. My father wrote to him about this. This was at the time when the Jews were being persecuted in Germany. And he told Mr. Belikoff what was what. He wrote William Goldman, and he said, "My heart bleeds when I think about what happened with my friends, particularly when I think of what is being done to our people over in Germany." He said, "I have written this to him, and he is a very fine man, and I'm sure he will do something." He didn't. Never answered.

HARDY: And this was right after the Equal Rights Bill had passed?

MARTIN: The bill had passed. However, the thing was blown out - but they stopped it. [Goldman] didn't like the idea of being arrested. And that was a tactic we were just going to continue: go back, and arrest him again. And there was no, like, the jury asked, "Well, did somebody advise you to go there?" No, but I knew, and I knew what the - the District Attorney charged them, and he got paid off, that's all. That's the way those things were done in those days…. But that one act, when we got this man, that stopped the theater segregation, right then and there.

HARDY: Just in those theaters, or throughout the city?

MARTIN: All their theaters. See, they owned most of the theaters.

HARDY: So that was the test case, then?

MARTIN: Yeah, that was a test case. Now Raymond Alexander, he worked on this [unclear] Theater, which was across from the office he had then at Nineteenth and Chestnut. And eventually he broke that down; that was privately owned. But see, the Stanley, the Mastbaum - they had the big chain.

HARDY: Wasn't the Mastbaum the first theater in the city not to segregate, and to proclaim in banners when it opened that it wouldn't?

MARTIN: When it opened, it did not. I don't think it proclaimed in banners, but I think there was a reporter, Bernice Dutrell, who went down and she talked to - I think at that time, they brought the man over from New York, [Samuel Roxy Rothafel] who had the Roxy Theater in New York. I think he ran it for a year or so.

HARDY: Did the Equal Rights law then change the state of Jim Crow in Philadelphia?

MARTIN: Well, it did, because you know, it's on the law. In other words, before, we had an equal rights law, back around eighteen seventy-something, [1887] but it was rather weak, and it had never been enforced. But whenever you have a law on the books, you have something behind you, and then it's just like what happened in the South, you know, in the last decade. It did make a difference. Once you had it on the books, you had something behind you. All you have to do is - you just bring case after case…. And incidentally, that test case was brought by the N.A.A.C.P., the one I was involved in. That was an N.A.A.C.P. case. But… I think you'll find that people did not use it. Number one, Philadelphians generally did not eat out too much, whether they're white or colored, up to recent years. That's why so many restaurants went broke. It was not an eating city. And there was not occasion for many to test it. In other words, if you feel like just going out - well, they didn't plan to eat out, so they saw no need of really testing it. But it was there, and they were aware of it. And we had one case, the Stouffer's restaurant, Mamie Davis, who was a YWCA secretary, and I think they dosed her food up with a whole bunch of salt and pepper and whatnot, and she saved the contents and brought suit against them.

HARDY: Stouffer's seems to be one of the ones that was regularly mentioned by people.

MARTIN: They were very nasty, yeah….

Credit: Interview with Isadore M. Martin Jr., interviewer Charles Hardy III, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 30, 1984.
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