top of page
  • Emmanuel Mehr

Ford’s Theater and the Struggle for Postwar Civil Rights in Baltimore City

BHW 14: May 6, 2023


This lighted sign is from the Ford's Grand Opera House in Baltimore City. It spells out "Ford's" in cursive with lightbulbs along the lettering. It is mounted on the wall as part of a museum exhibit.
Figure 1. “Ford's Grand Opera House Theater Sign,” photo by author, April 2023, on display at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Industry.


From 1947 to 1952, Baltimoreans picketed Baltimore’s Ford’s Theater in protest of its Jim Crow segregation policy. [1] Originally named Ford’s Grand Opera House, this Baltimore venue is not to be confused with the more-famous theater of the same name in Washington, D.C. However, both venues were created by John T. Ford and both are historically connected to white supremacy. [2] The D.C. theater’s claim to fame is hosting John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, an action deeply rooted in white supremacy. By contrast, Baltimore’s Ford’s Theater reached national headlines for the long struggle to root out white supremacist policies. Led by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Black Baltimoreans and their allies fought segregation by demanding better from the city’s most prominent theater. This eventually led Governor Theodore R. McKeldin, formerly mayor of Baltimore, to order the creation of a “Commission on Interracial Relations” to investigate the Ford’s Theater situation. [3] The Commission concluded full desegregation was the answer and took this recommendation to theater management, who responded that “This is a peaceful, honorable and orderly approach to this problem, and accordingly we accept the recommendation of the commission.” [4] This official statement glosses over a remarkable history of local struggle, leadership, and activism that speaks volumes about Baltimore City’s immediate postwar history. The Baltimore branch of the NAACP, Black Baltimoreans, and local allies of Black Baltimore came together to score this crucial desegregation victory in the northernmost urban outpost of Jim Crow.

The Baltimore NAACP, led by Dr. Lillie Carroll Jackson, coordinated the Ford’s Theater demonstrations from the start of picketing to the opening of its first integrated show. The theater was segregated from its opening in 1871 until its 1952 desegregation. [5] In 1935, Dr. Jackson was elected president of the NAACP’s Baltimore branch, a position she held until her retirement in 1970. [6] Under her leadership, membership in Baltimore’s NAACP rose dramatically, making it one of the largest branches in the country by 1946. [7] She also cultivated a personal alliance with Mayor McKeldin, later Governor McKeldin, which proved invaluable to postwar civil rights victories. [8] As historian Andor Skotnes writes, Dr. Jackson became “the paramount, almost mythic, leader of the increasingly powerful Baltimore freedom movement.” [9] Baltimore’s civil rights struggle was an essential part of her life and that of her family. Indeed, her daughter Juanita became a key Baltimore civil rights leader herself, founding and heading the City-Wide Young People’s Forum of Baltimore in 1931. Through this organization, Juanita led the creation of a strong youth wing for Baltimore’s NAACP. [10]

The Ford’s Theater desegregation struggle began with petitions and letter-writing, and this example demonstrates that involvement went far beyond just the NAACP. Adah K. Jenkins, who led the local Non-Segregation Committee, played a large role in this early campaign stage. So did A. Robert Kaufman, the white youth who was president of the Interracial Fellowship. Both these leaders collaborated at times with the NAACP but worked primarily through their own non-NAACP organizations. The choice to start with petitions and letters relates to historian David Taft Terry’s argument that desegregation advocates demonstrated nuanced understanding of the social climate around them. Indeed, by adjusting civil rights strategies in accordance with public opinion, activists strategically maximized their chances of success. [11] This is why it made sense to start with contacting professionals in the theater industry and seeking their support. These primarily white professionals had great sway in the theater world and many held social views amenable to desegregation. Jenkins and Kaufman sent letters to stars with upcoming shows in Baltimore, urging them to show solidarity by boycotting the venue. This work also gained a measure of self-sustainability, in that prominent theater people who Jenkins and Kaufman did not reach out to started sending letters conveying support for the cause. [12]

In addition to the many white Broadway stars who honored calls to not cross the Ford’s Theater picket lines, well-known Black star Paul Robeson played a notable role. His involvement also demonstrates the complexities of civil rights protest, as he once crossed the picket lines before later marching in the protests himself. [13] In 1943, Robeson starred in a production of Porgy and Bess in front of a segregated Ford’s Theater audience in Baltimore. Earlier that year, he had successfully pushed for cancellation of the Ford’s date for his starring role in Othello. In the Othello case he was successful in not crossing the picket lines, for Porgy and Bess he was not. Why this was the case is unclear. However, some historians suggest this likely had to do with a contract dispute. [14] In other words, it was more a matter of the legal details than any sort of social statement. Robeson redeemed himself in 1948 when he joined the picket line while in town for a political rally. Since he was one of the most famous Black actors in the country at the time, this show of solidarity was very impactful. [15]

The letter-driven boycott of Ford’s Theater by prominent stars and production companies economically impacted Baltimore’s theater industry, strengthening economic motives for desegregation. In January of 1952, Governor McKeldin wrote to the Interracial Commission, emphasizing the economic impacts of the ongoing demonstrations. McKeldin wrote, “Many white people have been reluctant to cross the picket line, and so, in addition to the injustice involved, there have been inconveniences to many persons and economic loss.” [16] This speaks to the strength of the boycott initiative, as clear dollar losses made it harder for Jim Crow advocates to argue in favor of continued segregation. The alliance of protest supporters strengthened the boycott and encompassed numerous organizations, races, genders, economic statuses, and generations. [17] But this unity must not be over-stated. Demonstrators still faced racial hatred and violence in response to peaceful picketing. In a 1976 oral history interview, Black Baltimorean activist and U.S. Congressman Parren James Mitchell reflected on this. He called Ford’s Theater one of his “first picketing ventures” and recalled “night after night being there on that picket line.” He then started his next thought with “and the actual…” before a prolonged pause. He continued, with added seriousness, “ugliness, the hostility on the parts of some of the whites across the picket line [was jarring].” [18] Civil rights protesters had to contend with manifestations of racial animosity throughout the struggle, as is the case to this day.

The resources given to the Ford’s Theater demonstrations reveal a critique of the organizations and individuals involved, which is a focus on middle- and upper-class interests. When Baltimore’s department stores moved towards desegregation in the early 1940s, some refused to serve Black Baltimoreans deemed not middle- or upper-class. [19] Relatedly, attending marquee Broadway shows at a venue such as Ford’s was only a realistic option for wealthier Black Baltimoreans. As historian Lee Sartain writes, “Opening up the theaters of Baltimore could be seen as an elitist pursuit to allow the black middle classes access to cultural institutions on an equal basis to that of the white middle-class.” [20] The generally middle-class composition of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) makes sense considering participation required significant time to spare for activist involvement. [21] While theaters were a middle- and upper-class domain, surely desegregation as a broader cause would benefit Black Baltimoreans regardless of economic status. The class discrepancies in the civil rights movement should not take away from the strength of the movement and its hard-earned gains, but it is worth keeping in mind those who may have been left behind.

In addition to the impactful leaders of Baltimore’s Black liberation movement, everyday Baltimoreans played a fundamental role in the success of the Ford’s demonstrations. The theater’s management team initially tried to dismiss the protests, saying that segregation was in line with general industry policy in Baltimore. The many Baltimoreans who filled the picket lines for years proved this stance unacceptable. While occasionally over the years of protest the picketer count dwindled to one or two, the people of Baltimore kept the demonstrations going. [22] As David Taft Terry writes, “Everyday neighborhood folk became revolutionaries of a sort.” Terry suggests that the Depression and New Deal divided white Americans, making some more amenable to allyship with Black people in the postwar era. However, it was Black Baltimoreans themselves who pressured white people to align with the cause, identifying opportunities presented by social division. [23] While leadership is a vital component of social movement histories, the on-the-ground contributions of demonstrators provide the fuel for change.

Differential coverage of the Ford’s Theater demonstrations in the city’s Black and white presses demonstrates the divisiveness of racial topics in mid-twentieth century Baltimore. The Black-led, Black-geared Baltimore Afro-American covered the protests extensively for their entire duration. The predominantly white Baltimore Sun only reported on what was deemed protestor misconduct, if they covered the demonstrations at all. [24] Coverage of the eventual decision to integrate Ford’s Theater in February 1952 exemplifies these differences. On February 2, the Baltimore Afro-American front-page read, “Ford’s Open to All.” The article emphasized the lengthy struggle, stating, “For approximately six years, the NAACP, the Committee for Non-Segregation in Baltimore Theatres and associated groups had waged war against the theatre’s policy of restricting colored patrons to balcony seats.” [25] The Afro-American’s coverage gives off a victorious aura. By contrast, the Baltimore Sun headline that same day read, “Ford’s Theater Decides to Abandon Segregation.” The verb-choice of abandon in and of itself speaks volumes, suggesting the segregation policy was a cherished tradition being left behind. The opening lines of the article continued this biased angle, asserting, “Ford’s Theater is a private enterprise. This means, among other things, that the owners and managers thereof have full right to decide who shall not enter their doors. It also means, of course, that other persons have a full right to decide whether or not they patronize the theater. Nobody is forced to attend.” [26] The focus is on the rights of the mostly white management team rather than the accomplishments of the activists who forced the issue. Moreover, the Afro-American made the story front-page news when it broke in time for the February 2 issue, whereas the Sun pushed it to page eight.

Leaders of Baltimore’s Black liberation organizations worked closely with socially conscious Baltimoreans and allies of Black Baltimore to win the desegregation of Ford’s Theater after six years of picketing. This alliance resisted segregation through letter-writing campaigns, petitions, demonstrations, and boycotts. Eventually, prominent theater industry folks responded to activist outreach and joined the desegregation cause by cancelling appearances, with at least one going as far as to join the picket line themselves. These cancellations had an immense economic impact on the city’s theater industries, adding an economic basis for supporting desegregation. While the organizations and individuals directly involved mostly represented middle- and upper-class backgrounds, they fought for liberation from the strictures of Jim Crow for all Black Baltimoreans. The Black press, principally the Baltimore Afro-American, played an important role in mobilizing and informing the cause. This role was rendered exceedingly important by the exclusion of Black liberation narratives from the city’s primary paper, the Baltimore Sun. Parren James Mitchell recalls that the Ford’s Theater protests provided his gateway into a life of activism. [27] It appears this was not uncommon for the generation of Baltimoreans who would later figure prominently in the national and local civil rights reckonings of the 1960s. Baltimore itself made many of these civil rights gains a decade before their national counterparts. [28] Black Baltimoreans and their allies fought hard for civil rights gains in the postwar era, becoming one of the primary hubs for civil rights in the twentieth-century United States.


[1] For general overviews of the Baltimore Ford’s Theater picketing and its date range, see David Taft Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South: Confronting Jim Crow in Baltimore Before the Movement (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2019), 207, Kindle edition; Lee Sartain, Borders of Equality: The NAACP and the Baltimore Civil Rights Struggle, 1914-1970 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 64, Kindle edition; Adah K. Jenkins, “History Of Elimination Of Ford’s Segregation,” Baltimore Afro-American, February 2, 1952, 5,

[2] Jennifer A. Ferretti, “‘Temple of the Drama’: The Five-Year Protest at Ford’s Theater, 1947-1952,” in Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City, eds. P. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, and Joshua Clark Davis (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 152, Kindle edition.

[3] “Ford’s Open To All: Theatre Ends Separate Seating,” Baltimore Afro-American, February 2, 1952, 1,

[4] “Ford’s Drops Its Policy of Segregation,” Baltimore Sun, February 1, 1952, 32,

[5] See “SEGREGATION ENDS AT FORD’S THEATRE,” New York Times, February 5, 1952, 23,; “Ford’s Drops Its Policy of Segregation,” Baltimore Sun, February 1, 1952, 32.

[6] Sartain, Borders of Equality, 7.

[7] Ferretti, “Temple of the Drama,” 153.

[8] Carroll P. Kakel III, “Fighting Hitler and Jim Crow: Baltimore Activists, Equal Rights, and World War II, 1941-45, Journal of Civil and Human Rights 6, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2020): 71,

[9] Andor Skotnes, A New Deal for All?: Race and Class Struggles in Depression-Era Baltimore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 307, Kindle edition.

[10] Thomas L. Bynum, “‘WE MUST MARCH FORWARD!’: JUANITA JACKSON AND THE ORIGINS OF THE NAACP YOUTH MOVEMENT,” The Journal of African American History 94, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 488-489,

[11] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 12, 117.

[12] Ferretti, “Temple of the Drama,” 154.

[13] See C. Fraser Smith, Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 105; Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 161.

[14] See Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 161; Ferretti, “Temple of the Drama,” 153.

[15] Sartain, Borders of Equality, 67.

[16] “Ford’s Drops Its Policy of Segregation,” Baltimore Sun, February 1, 1952, 32.

[17] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 162.

[18] Parren James Mitchell, “Parren J. Mitchell interview,” by Susan Conwell, 1976 (Baltimore, MD), H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Center for History and Culture, McKeldin-Jackson Project Oral History Collection, 2:09-2:35,

[19] Kakel, “Fighting Hitler and Jim Crow,” 61.

[20] Sartain, Borders of Equality, 64.

[21] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 164; Kakel, “Fighting Hitler and Jim Crow,” 163.

[22] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 162.

[23] Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South, 117, 142.

[24] Ferretti, “Temple of the Drama,” 155.

[25] “Ford’s Open To All: Theatre Ends Separate Seating,” Baltimore Afro-American, February 2, 1952, 1.

[26] “Ford’s Theater Decides To Abandon Segregation,” Baltimore Sun, February 2, 1952, 8,

[27] Mitchell, “Parren J. Mitchell interview,” by Susan Conwell, 1976, 2:43-2:53.

[28] See Kakel, “Fighting Hitler and Jim Crow,” 54; Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 315.


bottom of page