Brenda Perry is building a monument of hope inside the historic Lincoln Theater of Old South Baton Rouge.
Last month Brenda Perry retired from her full-time job, leaving her free to devote herself heart and soul to the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame, of which she is founder, director, and visionary-in-chief.
“It started when I was in college,” says Perry, who graduated from Texas Southern University in Houston with a degree in public affairs and later got a master’s in social sciences from Southern University.
“I was learning about African American history in my classes,” she says. “I just started researching. So many people from right here in Louisiana did great things. I said, ‘Man, Louisiana’s got a lot of rich history. We’ve got to find a way to showcase it.’
“I would come home for summers and holidays, and I started talking to my mom about my idea,” says Perry, whose mother Helen was supportive of her efforts.
“Our first few meetings were held at her kitchen table in 1988,” says Perry. “I invited [civil rights leader] Rupert Richardson and a few others. There were six of us. We would just talk and bounce around ideas.”
Perry says the kitchen-table meetings led the group to acquire nonprofit status. They also got early support from the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus. “In 1990, the Caucus held a press conference at the State Capitol and we announced the formation of the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame,” she says.
The Hall of Fame began honoring African Americans who had achieved distinction in fields from literature to politics to medicine, including artist Clementine Hunter, musician Louis Armstrong, and Olympic gold medalists Willie Davenport and Fred Newhouse. The latest inductee, actress Lynn Whitfield, was honored in ceremonies held at Southern University in 2010.
“Every time we inducted someone, we put on an exhibit about the Hall of Fame,” says Perry. “We had ceremonies at Southern, at the Baranco-Clark YMCA, and other places. Around 2004 or 2005, the board decided we needed a place. We didn’t have a home. We looked [for a building] in north Baton Rouge, downtown, all over the city.
“At the end of 2008, I was driving down Myrtle Walk and I saw a For Sale sign at the Lincoln Theater. I said, ‘That’s a historical monument in itself. Why not marry the two?’”
Located in the heart of the area known as Old South Baton Rouge, a primarily African American community, the theater had been the heart of that once-vibrant area, hosting nationally known musicians such as Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole, and playing first-run movies. It had closed in the mid-1980s and needed intervention if it was to be preserved.
In 2009, the Hall of Fame purchased the theater for $345,000. The Foundation for Historical Louisiana donated $4,000 for closing costs, according to director Carolyn Bennett. “The Foundation also worked to get the theater listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” says Bennett.
Donna Fricker, a consultant formerly with the state’s Division of Historic Preservation, wrote the nomination, and the Hall of Fame was accepted on the National Register in December 2010.
According to Fricker, the theater was built in 1950 by Dr. A. L. Chatman, a local physician. A two-story brick-veneer building, it housed an air-conditioned theater that seated about five hundred persons, as well as a pharmacy, a barber shop, a dentist’s office, a Laundromat, attorneys’ offices, and the Baton Rouge Post newspaper office. “At that time African Americans didn’t have a place to go,” says Perry, who estimates the size of the building at ten thousand square feet. “It really was a center of entertainment, of business, of the community. It also was a civil-rights and voter-registration center.” Although Fricker notes that the dates are unclear, the Lincoln building also housed the United Defense League, which was formed to organize the Baton Rouge bus boycott of 1953. Coming a full two years before the Montgomery boycott of 1955–56, it was acknowledged by Rev. Martin Luther King as a model. In his autobiography King wrote of speaking to Baton Rouge boycott leader Rev. T. J. Jemison by phone.
Stories of an actual visit by King to Baton Rouge are legion, but evidence is sketchy. In an article in the Baton Rouge Advocate in 2010, retired attorney Johnnie Jones, one of the boycott’s organizers, recalled meeting with King and Jemison in Baton Rouge. Fred Williams, the former owner and manager of the Lincoln Theater, maintains that King visited Jemison’s church, Mt. Zion First Baptist on East Boulevard. Rumors abound of a photograph of King in Baton Rouge, perhaps taken at the Lincoln Theater, but so far no such photo has turned up.
Relics of the Lincoln are scarce, according to Perry, who has made several requests for artifacts related to the building. “For a while, I was carrying everything around in the trunk of my car,” she says. “Now it is housed at the Centroplex Library.”
Perry has received items related to persons inducted into the Hall of Fame, including an Olympic tie worn by Willie Davenport, donated by his widow, and some papers of the late Pinkie Gordon Lane, who was Louisiana’s Poet Laureate from 1989 to 1992. With help from the Foundation, the Hall of Fame has obtained a grant to remediate asbestos and lead-based paint, according to Bennett. “We also worked with the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority [RDA] to name the area a cultural district,” she says. “That means it can be eligible for tax incentives. The immediate goal is to make the theater habitable and to set up an office there so people can see the theater come back to life. We’d like to see the [original] marquee restored as soon as possible.”
Perry says restoration of the large sign will be part of Phase I of the project, the renovation of the theater, which includes establishing office and exhibit space. The RDA has earmarked grants and tax credits for that purpose and last year requested capital outlay funds from the legislature. “Right now we’re waiting to see if that money has been awarded,” says Perry, who hopes to raise additional funds from donations, including a major fundraising event planned for later this year by the Hall of Fame. In addition to reopening the theater, the first phase will include parking, landscaping, and a walking trail with signs designating historic events at the theater and in the Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood.
The second phase will be the construction of the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame Museum next to the theater. That project will be largely funded by donations and by revenue generated by films, concerts, and other events held at the theater. Perry would also like to see businesses housed in the Lincoln, taking the building back to its original multipurpose function. “To bring it back as a true revitalization project, we want to have a business center there,” she says.
Perry has a personal interest in the space, having spent many hours there as a child growing up nearby.
“We lived on East Polk Street,” she says. “On Sundays and Saturdays my mom would drop us off at the Lincoln. I must’ve been in elementary school, so this was in the 1960s. I’d go to the Lincoln with my older sister Cherry and her friend. We’d stand outside and talk, get popcorn. It just was fun. My piano teacher, Mr. Leo Beck, was down the street. He was the piano instructor for the neighborhood. My mom was a singer. She instilled in us to love music. Now I realize that this area was a safe haven, a safe place for us.” Years later, when she graduated from college and returned to Baton Rouge, Perry found the theater still going. “It was still functioning as a performing-arts theater when I came back in the 1980s,” she says. But shortly thereafter, the Lincoln was shuttered. The fact that her dream is finally coming to fruition is bittersweet for Perry, who regrets that such early supporters as her mother and Richardson will not be here to see the dream fulfilled. (Richardson, a former national president of the NAACP, died in 2008. Helen Perry died in 2009.)
“My mother was at every meeting,” says Perry. “She always carried a bag full of notes and programs. She was proud of me. She was there at the table when we closed on purchasing the theater, and I feel blessed for that.” Now Perry is ready to roll up her sleeves and make her twenty-five-year-old dream a reality. She is quick to cite the “Dream Team” that has helped bring the project to life, naming Ronnie Edwards and Tara Wicker of the Metro Council, state representatives Regina Barrow and Patricia Haynes Smith, and state senators Sharon Weston Broome and Yvonne Dorsey.
“It’s a big project,” says Perry. “But the Lincoln is a jewel. Once we polish it, we’ll be able to present it back to the public. It really is a historical monument of hope.”
Ruth Laney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.