Story From: December 19, 1965
Lottie Payne Stratton
Academy Center for the Arts
"Blaze Claims Life of Negro Woman, 62", read a small headline in the Lynchburg paper on December 19, 1965. Who was this woman? Join us as we dive into her story and discuss her importance in the history of the then-segregated Academy Center for the Arts.
Narrator: Lynda Gentry
Experts: Amanda Adams, Geoff Kershner, Doris Waller and Carl B. Hutcherson, Jr.
On December 19, 1965, on the front page of the local section of Lynchburg’s morning newspaper was a headline.
The headline and the story beneath it were tucked between articles about a new bridge being built in Altavista, giving paper money as Christmas presents, accident-prone intersections, and how local doctors were workaholics.
This headline, almost obscured by other news of the day, read as follows: “Blaze Claims Life of Negro Woman, 62.”
REPORTER 1 (THE NEWS, LYNCHBURG, VA, DECEMBER 19, 1965)
A Taylor Street fire early Saturday night claimed the life of a 62-year-old Negro woman and substantially damaged the brick home in which she lived.
Dead in the 6:28 p.m. blaze at 401 Taylor Street is Mrs. Lottie Stratton.
The fire, according to Lynchburg firemen, lasted about two hours and 20 minutes. It started in a small room of the brick structure, which contained a cot and some cabinets, firemen said.
The woman’s body was found about four feet from the cot and firemen surmised she had tried to find her way to the door but was overcome with smoke.
“The room was charred, the bed was destroyed and the floor beneath the bed was burned completely through,” according to a spokesman for the fire department.
Engine Companies 3 and 7 and the chief’s car responded to the blaze. No other injuries were reported.
There was no mention in the article about exactly who Lottie Stratton was, other than “Negro woman, 62.” Little did they know — these firemen who recovered Lottie’s lifeless body from her home’s charred remains — that she was “Ms. Boonie.”
Who was Ms. Boonie? Ms. Boonie was a woman who made Saturday mornings magical for generations of African-American children from the 1930s to the 1950s. During that time, she was the cashier for what was called the Academy of Music.
Located on the north side of Main Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, the Academy was built in 1905. The Beaux-Arts-style structure was designed by Frye and Chesterman, a prominent local architecture firm of the day.
On January 5, nearly a month before the theater opened, The Lynchburg News was already bragging about it.
REPORTER 2 (THE NEWS, LYNCHBURG, VA., JANUARY 5, 1905)
That the city is going to have the prettiest opera house in the state and among the prettiest in the entire South, is the claim of a number of persons who have seen the work of decorating the local house, and who have also seen most of the play houses of the Southern States.
There is in store a rich treat upon the opening of the building for the lovers of things theatrical, because few persons in the city have the slightest idea of the beautiful work that is being done on the building.
The Academy of Music opened on Wednesday evening, February 1, 1905, with the musical comedy, “The Show Girl,” starring Stella Mayhew. About 800 people attended the performance. The next morning, a story about the theater’s opening night took up almost two full columns of the newspaper’s front page. To say the least, it was a successful night for the Academy of Music.
REPORTER 3 (THE NEWS, LYNCHBURG, VA., FEBRUARY 2, 1905)
When the curtain rose on the first act it was evident that the audience was inclined to be critical, but as the performance progressed this was forgotten and, if one is to judge the appreciation of the audience by its applause, laughter and frequent and continued encores, then Miss Stella Mayhew, in “The Show Girl,” made a decided hit in the Hill City. The bill, in its entirety, was all that was claimed for it: a “jolly lot of tomfoolery” that kept the audience guessing, laughing and applauding for more than two hours.
From 1905 until 1958, when the Academy of Music closed its doors, the theater hosted a dizzying variety of shows. Everything from ragtime pianist Eubie Blake and actress Ethel Barrymore to cowboy movie star Tom Mix.
Local dance teacher Floyd Ward, who taught generations of Lynchburg children to dance at her Church Street studio, held her annual revues at the Academy, too.
At the Academy, Ms. Boonie worked in a tiny, upstairs room, two flights up from the theater’s Fifth Street entrance. The room was painted in a rose color and furnished with little more than a simple, blue-painted chair.
There, for about 30 years, Ms. Boonie sold tickets for the segregated balcony, the only place African-Americans were allowed to sit at the theater.
That was how things were at the time, all over the city and all over the South. To be sure, Lottie was no stranger to Jim Crow.
I was working there as the cashier for the colored balcony. You see, when whites wanted to go see a show or movie in that grand theater, they’d get to use the front door entrance and sit in any seat they wanted.
But colored folks, they’d have to enter through a covered entrance off Fifth, on the side street, and walk all the way up two long flights of steps in the back of the theater, where they’d eventually come to me.
I had a little nook in the wall that acted as the segregated box office, and I’d take people’s money. It was in the 1930s when I started and a ticket to the colored section to see a movie was 10 cents.
I’d give them a ticket and motion people to go around the corner and up another flight of steps and that’s where the segregated balcony was. And let me tell you, once you climbed all the stairs, those seats were high up.
They were far away from everyone and you could barely see if it was a live show, so not many of my people came and watched them unless someone special, like Eubie Blake or W.C. Handy, were on stage.
But when they were showing a movie, the screen hit right about eye level. And the view was heavenly, so much so there was no way I could keep it all to myself.
At some point, Ms. Boonie started letting black children into the movies for free. Was it an act of civil disobedience or a simple act of kindness performed by a woman with no children of her own? It’s easy to imagine it was a bit of both.
I yearned for little ones of my own for as long as I could recall. But God decided he had a different plan in store for me and Lawrence, my husband, though it took a long time to accept His purpose for us. A lot of pain, too.
I’m sure plenty of people know that aching emptiness. Doesn’t it seem the people that want babies the most can’t have ‘em?
After a while, we realized it was the tryin’ — the always tryin’ with not getting anywhere — that hurt more than not havin’ em. So we stopped. And we decided we were goin’ do somethin’ for those that God had chosen to put around us.
Lord, did we dote on the chil’ren of this city. We had a house at 401 Taylor, right up the street from the Old City Cemetery, and it seemed we always had some young’un knocking on our door, looking for some of my fresh-baked mulberry pie, red velvet cake, or homemade ice cream.
Yes, sir, everyone knew you could get the best sweets from Miss Boonie’s house! But what made them angels happy was Saturday afternoons at the Academy of Music, down on Main Street.
I don’t know why I started lettin’ in the children for free. I was thankful for my job, and Jim Crow was a part of life. I won’t trying to make any statement or right some kind of wrong.
Maybe it came down to me knowing that 10 cents was a lot of money for their families. The little kids wouldn’t have been able to see those movies any other way. And they should have. Because you know how movies can take you away? Make you forget your lot in life? Like the cards you got dealt get reshuffled just for a bit there in the dark when you see that magic comin’ from the projector.
I remember the wide-eyed looks of a few children from my block when they saw one of the serials, “Hopalong Cassidy.” And how tears almost came from my eyes when I watched them later that evenin’ acting out all the scenes, playing cowboys in the street.
For black folks, that feelin’ that anything was possible didn’t happen much for us. But I know it did every Saturday, for a while at least.
It went on like that for years, but then, as all good things must do … in 1958 the Academy closed its doors. I went on to work for Lynchburg City Schools in the cafeteria, which I didn’t mind since I got to see the children a lot more.
Ms. Boonie worked at Dunbar High School until December 18, 1965, the day of the fire that took her life.
On that evening, Lawrence was still at work at the Firestone Service Center, where he was a mechanic. One might imagine Ms. Boonie, at home on Taylor Street, reading and waiting up for him.
I liked to light a candle in the evening before I would go to bed. I’d read the Bible by it mostly, but that night I was enjoying a story in the Reader’s Digest. Sometimes, scripture isn’t always the best thing to fall to sleep to, especially when you’re lonely. Lawrence was still at work.
I was always real good about snuffing the flame out when I was done, but it had been a rather hard day. Plus, it was December 18th, getting close to Christmas, and I always got a little more in need of readin’ for company. So, I accidentally fell asleep with the book still in my hand.
I don’t know how that still-lit candle got knocked over under my bed, but I remember waking up to nothing but heat. It was pitch-dark and I was so confused. I struggled to get out of bed, but only made it a few steps before the smoke overtook me.
And then, just like the end of a show, everything went to black.
According to her death certificate, Lottie Stratton died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation.
As mentioned before, her death received only cursory notice in the local newspaper. In Lynchburg, during the Civil Rights Movement and beforehand, the local paper wasn’t kind to African Americans.
Unless you committed a crime or died in some spectacular manner, your name wasn’t likely to appear on its pages.
And if an African-American person was mentioned for any other reason, the word ‘Negro” or “Colored” was printed after their name. It was always “comma, negro” or “comma, colored.”
The New Journal and Guide, a Norfolk newspaper, was known for printing Lynchburg’s African-American news, however.
On January 8, 1866, that newspaper printed a lengthier, more personal and dignified remembrance of Lottie, under the headline, “Mrs. Lottie P. Stratton Dies in Lynchburg.”
REPORTER 4 (New Journal and Guide, Norfolk, Va., January 8, 1966)
Mrs. Lottie P. Stratton was given final rites recently at Court Street Baptist Church. The Rev. Paul Warren officiated and the church choir furnished music.
Mrs. Stratton died after a fire in her home at 401 Taylor Street. She was a member of the Amity Bridge Club and was on the dietician staff at Dunbar High School.
Flower bearers were Mesdames Drucilla Moultrie, Cordelia Pinn, Lillian White, Sephronia Leath, Edith Davis, Kathleen Manns and Alice King.
Honorary pallbearers were Sherman Washington, Lee Johnson, Manson Brown, Silas Cardwell, James Harvey and John Hughes.
Active pallbearers were J.C. Moultrie, G.E. Hughes, N.O. White, O.M. Washington, Mason Brown and Allen Burton.
Out-of-towners attending were Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Jefferson of Washington, D.C.; Mrs. Vashti Higginbotham of New York City; Mrs. Fannie Mae Woodruff and Mrs. Othella Stallings of Agricola (A-GRICK-A-LA), Virginia; Dr. Carroll Jackson of Washington, D.C.; and Dr. Clifton Jackson of Hampton, Virginia.
Ms. Boonie’s husband, Lawrence, died a few years later, in 1969. The house at 401 Taylor Street was torn down. Eventually, 401 Taylor became the address of Old City Cemetery, where Ms. Boonie and Lawrence are buried, side by side.
GROUP DISCUSSION I
Ted: I’m Ted Delaney, director of the Lynchburg Museum System, and I’m joined now by Amanda Adams, architect with CJMW Architecture and project manager for the restoration of the Academy Center for the Arts here in Lynchburg. We also have here with us Geoffrey Kershner, Executive Director of the Academy Center for the Arts. Let me start with you, Amanda. What does Lottie Stratton mean to you, why is she important?
Amanda: I think she’s just this incredible connection to the community as well as to the African American community for the Academy. We have actually some of the most personal and intimate details of her life, more so than maybe anyone else that worked at the Academy. It all started with that blue chair of hers, which was a very special artifact.
Ted: Geoff, I’ll ask you the same thing.
Geoff: Well for us I think history is very often written by those who are in positions of power. And certainly if you were black in America during the time that the theater was open you were likely not in much of a place to be writing the history that ended up in the history book. So we don’t know a lot about the specifics of what that segregated experience was and it’s not particularly well documented because their voices weren’t necessarily heard. So what’s incredible, and as Amanda said we have all this information on Lottie that’s really unique. So we are able to have a name and a face and an individual that we can associate with that time, that I think is really special. It’s a connection point to something that’s really hard to connect to. Very often people will ask us specific questions about that second balcony, and it’s very often hard to answer questions. But we can always talk about Lottie and who she is and what she did. Which I think helps personify that space, which I think is really helpful to us.
Ted: How exactly did you preserve Mrs. Stratton’s story in the restoration of the historic theater? Specifically what did you want people to see or experience that you then translated into the restoration?
Amanda: Well, one of the things is the segregated box office, her working space, actually was a perfect utilities route location. Early on we made the decision that we are not going to desecrate the space with air conditioning ducts. That took a lot of work to make that happen. We had to make some really long ducting routes to avoid that area. But, so often in, and this is sad that the Academy set for 60 years before she reopened, but in a sense when she was abandoned in 1958 she was segregated. Then because nothing happened in the theater all of that painful experience was actually preserved. The alley connection, the route up the stairs, the segregated box office, right down to her blue chair. I mean she collected her last paycheck and her purse and walked out of that space. So, what a rare and unique find to have that whole route preserved. And so we very much as the architectural firm and design team, we did not want that to be destroyed. We didn’t know exactly how it would all work out, but we knew somehow, some way we wanted people to be able to walk that route if they wanted to to get that experience.
Ted: Geoff, how did the social history of the theater first come up in the discussions about the restoration? When was the first time that became an issue and was on the table?
Geoff: So my personal experience with the theater taught me a lot about what an audience member’s experience probably was, you know, at the time the theater was open if you were African American. And that was because when i first got to the job about 4 years ago I took kind of a personal, by myself journey through the theater just to kind of wander around and I got lost. Basically on my journey from the first balcony to the second balcony, and also from the first balcony to the orchestra level. And the reason that is is because the building is literally cutting you off from accessing the two spaces. And that experience of getting lost and being pushed out of one space into another and then not understanding where I was was really eye opening to me of how this structure literally separated audience members from one another. For us as an organization, that’s been really important that it’s not the experience in the present day. Amanda can maybe speak a little to this, there were performers who would come to the theater who were African Americans, so there was also another experience too for audience members.
Amanda: Right, thank you Geoff for reminding us of that. I think there was something really strangely wrong with these incredibly talented African American performers who had amazing talents, they also experienced a segregated condition when they arrived to do their performance. But then they were separated by this enormous horizontal and even vertical dimension from the stage to the second balcony where AA patrons were there. The physicality of the space and the route, that maze that Geoff talked about it really does tell you how separated those cultures were.
Geoff: You know, that reminds me also when I got there to the Academy in the first year, I had a conversation with an older woman who had experienced the second balcony as a black patron and she had come with her family to see a young African American pianist who a prodigy who was playing, so they had gone to support this performer. And the comment she had said to me was that yes they would go to the Academy occasionally under those circumstances, but that was not their theater. That really struck me. I think when we were going to reopen this space I was reminded that there was still a generation of people who were still alive who experienced that space as a segregated space, felt that it wasn’t their space, wasn’t a place that they were fully welcome. For us at the Ac our mission is service oriented, it’s oriented around serving the entire community. We are successful in that in some regards, but every day we have a lot of improvement to make to, right there are a lot of social barriers that make it difficult to connect, and there are financial barriers to us connecting to the entire community. So, it was really important to us that we addressed that early on in our programming and how we messaged that space and what it was and what it means.
Ted: Geoff, do you have any plans for the future that include Mrs. Stratton, her ticket booth, her story… anything specific that will involve her?
Geoff: We do. We’ve commissioned Kevin Chadwick who’s an area painter, who’s done some paintings of donors who are hanging in the historic lobby now, to do a painting of Lottie. The original thought was that it would hang somewhere near Lottie’s box office, near the segregated ticket booth. But our director of community outreach, Evan Smith, came to me at our weekly meetings that we have and he asked if it would be possible to actually place Lottie by the new ticket booth in the new lobby. His reasoning around that was, to be quite frank most of the painting that are hanging in the space are of older white individuals and we think about the message that we send to an audience member when they walk into the space in regards to are the welcome? Is this a space for them? We thought that actually honoring Lottie at that main entrance point where everybody would see her was maybe more valuable to us as an organization in messaging, but also to honor Lottie in the present moment. We don’t want to put her up there anymore because that’s not where she should be. So, we’re pretty sure we’re going to do that. The painting is just getting started on now, and we had a discussion this week about where we’re going to place it. The other thing that we’re going to do is that, we’re really fortunate in conversations with Amanda’s team, as well as with the contractors, we made a decision that we would go ahead and stretch a projection screen across the surface, it’s really hard to explain. Basically the way that the second balcony works there’s like a wall that’s in front of the audience and they look underneath that wall to see the stage. But if you look straight ahead in a seat there, you’re looking at a wall. So we had a projection screen stretched across that and had wiring done in the back for I think 5 projectors that eventually we hope to raise the money to place those projectors there. We’re going to commision a group of artists to create a multimedia experience that will tell the story of the segregated South in particular theaters. It will be an educational tool for us when we take people up to that balcony. I know that Lottie wil be a part of that, I’m positive. Those are two really specific things we are doing. Oh! The third thing is we’ve established an annual award in Lottie’s honor. At the opening of the theater, when Mavis Staples played, we were celebrating the integration of the space, and we were pretty vocal about it, pretty direct in what we were doing and why we were doing it. We established three awards, one of them is the Lottie Payne Stratton award, and that award goes to an individual who is unheralded, who is providing access to the arts. The stories we hear about Lottie, though they differ in how she did this, she would allow children to get into the Saturday matinees for free, young African American kids. Some stories say that she would pretend she didn’t see them, that they would run through and get up there. Others say that it was coordinated and planned, but the idea that she was giving access to those movies, we want that to live on. So, Michelline Hall this year, who is an African American artist and photographer, we gave that award to her this year. And we will award it to somebody new next year.
Ted: Thank you both so much for joining me here and for sharing your thoughts, we really appreciate it.
Geoff: Thank you.
Amanda: Thank you.
GROUP DISCUSSION II
Ted: I’m joined now my Ms. Doris Waller and the Reverend Carl B. Hutcherson, Jr., both lifelong residents of Lynchburg. Thank you for being here today.
Doris and Carl: Thank you for having us.
Ted: Ms. Waller, let me start with you. Tell me what you remember about the Academy Theater before it closed in 1958.
Doris: Well, we always thought it was a beautiful place to go. At least twice a week my aunt Ida Jones and I, we used to go. Especially on Fridays. She would go to the Academy when she got off from work to rest. I was looking at the movie and she was nodding, every now and then she would raise up and look at the movies. That’s when she was able to do her homework and also she had a handicap son that she had to take care of. She was up half of the night working at home. But we always went down to the Academy.
Ted: So while you were watching the show, she was getting a little nap.
Doris: A little nap. Every now and then she would wake up. Mhmm.
Ted: What do you remember about the inside of the Academy? Do you have any memories of what it was like on the inside?
Doris: The only is I remember the steps, the little narrow steps that we had to go up. There was two lines for tickets, but we did not know why at that time. We just thought it was the way of life. Mrs. Stratton, she would sell us tickets, but there was another line for white only.
Ted: Do you remember, was it marked? Was there a sign that said “colored only”?
Doris: That I do not know. But, most of the times when they have something like this, they have one line for the black and one for the white, that’s what it means. In other words, everybody knew which line to get into.
Ted: It was just understood.
Doris: Understood, that’s right.
Ted: Reverend Hutcherson, when you were growing up in Lynchburg, where would you go to the movies or to see a live performance?
Carl: Well most of the time we went to the Harrison Theater. I only went to the Academy once, and I went up the steps like Ms. Waller said, took a seat and sat there for a little while until this rodent ran across my feet. I didn’t go back to the Academy anymore. But I used to go up to the Harrison at 5th Street. Later on of course, if you wanted to come downtown, you came to the Paramount or to the Warner, those were the other two theaters downtown. But the same principle applied that Ms. Waller was talking about. There were two separate doors. At the one it was a side door, on the side, and at the Paramount there was a side door on the front.
Ted: Now where were these theaters?
Carl: Right across the street from the Academy was where one of them was. The other was down at the corner of 11th and Main.
Ted: Do you remember what kind of person Mrs. Stratton was? Do you have any sense of who she was as a person?
Doris: Oh she was beautiful. That’s all I can say. She was beautiful. She always had a smile. When you got ready to leave she always told you “Good evening” and “Goodnight” and “Have a blessed day”. Mhmm.
Ted: So, tell me more about the Harrison Theater, where was it? What did you see there? What was it like?
Carl: The Harrison was in the 900 block of Martin Luther King Boulevard, 5th Street. It was just one level, kind of slanted down, and there was a partition, much like the partition we are sitting in front of, there was a partition behind us, and behind that partition was where they sold the popcorn and snacks and all of the kids of course loved it, it was always good buttered popcorn. The snacks were great.
Doris: The children, sometimes that was their home on Saturdays. The movies opened at 9AM, they was in there and stayed until about 2 or 3. You could see the movie over and over again. It’s real surprising now, once the movie is over you have to come out unless you’ve got another [inaudible].
Ted: So if you stayed in your seat they didn’t make you get up?
Doris: If you stayed in your seat. As long as you was quiet.
Ted: So how did people choose which theater to go to? You mentioned lots of options for theaters in Lynchburg. How did you choose? Was it merely a factor of which show was playing, which movie was playing?
Carl: Yeah, and I think after a while, the other two theaters that opened, the Paramount and the Warner, began to realize they were losing out on some money by not opening its doors to African Americans. On the other hand, when we realized we could come downtown and go to a movie, we started… even with the Academy, that’s the one reason I came to the Academy that one time was “hey we can go down to the Academy to the movies!” and I went that one day. BUt the Warner and the Paramont opened their doors, and it was almost like it was a privilege. Like Ms. Waller said, it didn’t matter whether it was upstairs or downstairs whether you saw the movie, it was just the fact that you could come down and see the movie and if you were old enough and your parents let you come, that was a real treat.
Ted: Do y’all ever remember African American performers coming to Lynchburg?
Carl: Most of the people who came were musicians. Even though there were people like Harry Belafonte who came here, but I remember Fats Domino. Fats Domino, I was a boy and Fats Domino—all of the places that they came and sang and performed had to be segregated. Where we are sitting right now, there’s a garage right next door. Jackie Wilson performed in the garage, packed the garage. Charlie Gilmore was always the promoter, he promoted all of it—James Brown, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, all of those kinds of performers… Etta James. I was trying to think of some of the latest since it’s the year of the woman. Etta James, those persons came and performed. If they did not perform here, they performed at the Armory. James Brown performed at the armory. Now only Blacks could go the night that he was here, or any of the other performers. That is another story in itself about desegregation in our city. The Armory wasn’t desegregated until wrestling came on Friday nights. We would go to Armory to watch wrestling and blacks had to sit on one side and whites on the other, but it was integrated.
Ted: So when someone like Otis Redding would come to Lynchburg, you said you basically only had two venues that were open to him. You said the Armory and then this garage here on Commerce Street. So Chuck Berry, all of them. Were there any other venues here that were open them, the Sportsman’s Club, anything else?
Carl: Well the Sportsman did open its doors later, but the Sportsman couldn’t hold the number of people that the Armory wound up holding or that the garage held. Most people had to stand up in the garage anyway, they weren’t in the seats. Just sit on the rails.
Ted: Reverend Hutcherson, have we missed anything about theatres or performers or anything?
Carl: I don’t think so. There were probably other performers who came, because there were some who actually came before I started thinking about who might be performing in our city. But, over the years the performers have continued to come. Some cam up the street to the building on the other side, I can’t think of the name of it. Across the other side of the bridge. Otis Redding came there one night and packed it.
Ted: Was that the little theater? The Ellington?
Doris: The Ellington, uh-huh.
Carl: Yeah, the Ellington. Came there. The guitarist. The blues guitaris.
Ted: Miles, uh Miles—B.B. King?
Carl: B.B. King, he performed at Glass of course. That’s one thing that happened over the years is the schools had the largest venue. A number of people in Lynchburg have attempted over the years to really try to get a facility like in Roanoke. I was on the little committee that was hoping to reopen the Academy, and they asked me who I would like to come and I said Beyonce! Start big. [laughter] and work it out. You never know. You just never know who might come. You might not be able to afford them, but they’ll come.
Ted: We’ve got the venue now for them.
Carl: We’ve got the venue for them.
Ted: Thank you both so much for joining me today and sharing your memories of Lynchburg, I really appreciate it.
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