The Dunbar leads the McAdams renaissance
Editor's Note: This week's Wichitarchaeology is a special edition, presented in conjunction with the Historic Dunbar Theatre Open House Concert taking place this Sunday, Oct. 12. The fourth and final installment of "Where the Streets Have Historically Relevant Names" will appear in next week's F5.
Tucked away between the Canal Route and the North End's industrial zone, bordered by Murdock on the south and 13th on the north, the main section of Wichita's McAdams neighborhood exists today in a kind of quiet stasis, seemingly forgotten by a city that has conveniently bypassed (not to mention bisected) it with major traffic arteries. But once, only a few decades ago, it was a thriving, self-contained community, populated almost entirely by African-Americans.
In the World War II era, the aircraft plants hired thousands of workers to meet the military's demand for warplanes. People of all colors and backgrounds streamed into Wichita looking for work, and many found it. Wichita's black population, which had hovered at roughly five percent for decades, experienced an unprecedented growth spurt; this segment of the populace increased from 5,600 to 8,000 people in the decade between 1940 and 1950.
With enforced segregation in effect, housing options for the influx of non-whites were largely limited to the McAdams area, feeding a microboom in housing and commercial development. In its heyday, there was a grocery store, both a barber shop and a beauty salon, pool hall, shoe repair shop, fish market, barbecue joint and Turner Drug with its soda fountain. McAdams even had its own school — and its own orphanage, the Phyllis Wheatley Children's Home. In its way, one could say the neighborhood was a suburb of sorts, a quasi-autonomous town within the city.
What tied the neighborhood together symbolically, perhaps more than anything else, was the Dunbar Theatre, at 1007 N. Cleveland. Named for popular African-American poet Paul Dunbar, the small but modern movie house came along just as McAdams was approaching its fullest bloom. Its architect, Wichitan Raymond Harmon, utilized the clean, modern lines of the era, adding a touch of sophistication to Cleveland Avenue. The contemporary press remarked on the building's fine features, among them: "the most modern equipment attainable… including newest sound and projection equipment … luxurious seats … [and] year-round air conditioning."
On opening night, Aug. 15, 1941, the theater screened a cartoon, a crime thriller (The Gang's All Here, featuring Mantan Moreland) and The Road to Zanzibar, the second of the Road films starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. The Dunbar, with an almost entirely black staff, was an immediate success with patrons who were forced to sit in the balcony at other Wichita theaters.
The Dunbar thrived through the 1940s and '50s, even giving rise to a local community newspaper called The Tattler. The theater served as a community center, too, hosting non-theatrical events of import to the people in the neighborhood, including the Emith Masonic Temple's annual Christmas party for area children.
By the early 1960s, a number of factors had begun working against McAdams. The I-135 bypass (Canal Route) project carved a crooked swath through the neighborhood, displacing residences and businesses arbitrarily along its path. Landmark legal decisions at the state and federal level led to increased access to greater housing opportunities for minorities, not to mention access to businesses that had once served a "whites only" clientele. The business district at Ninth and Cleveland began dying on the vine.
In 1963, the Dunbar closed its doors.
Now, a half-century later, having survived multiple condemnations by the city before being protected under the auspices of the National Register of Historic Places, there is finally a groundswell of support for its renovation and reopening to the public. The nonprofit organization Power CDC has been steadily working toward that goal since 2007, replacing the roof, adding a new marquee and drawing up plans for an entirely new interior to replace that which was ripped out years ago in an earlier attempt at remodeling.
This Sunday, Oct. 12, an open house concert will be presented in the vacant lot directly adjacent to the Dunbar. This event is a joint project organized by this author; Lindsey Stillwell, a student in WSU's School of Social Work, engaged in a community-based practicum; Natalie Hodge-Grant, an assistant professor in the same department; and of course, the folks at Power CDC, chiefly its executive director, Mr. James Arbertha. The event is being underwritten in part by private individuals and local businesses, including a generous donation from Dee Starkey of Jim Starkey Music Center.
From 1 to 7 p.m. there will be live music from local blues icon Berry Harris, the Americana folk-rock of Tom Page Trio, singer-songwriter Uche, jazz greats Bodo Trio and 11-year-old guitar star Carson Mac, plus dancers, magic and beats by DJ Christophilus during the breaks. Twisted Confections will have all sorts of fresh-made eats for sale (with profits going toward the fundraiser) and sharp green Dunbar T-shirts will be available for a $20 donation.
Though the entertainment will be taking place outdoors, the theater doors will be open and attendees will be welcome to look around inside. This event is family-friendly and open to everyone. There is no charge for admittance, but donations will be cheerfully accepted and greatly appreciated. We hope to see you there.