Portsmouth NAACP Protests Jim Crow at the Westland Theater

Screening of Joe Louis's “The Spirit of Youth” Sparks Controversy in 1938

In February 1938, Joe Louis was just starting his reign as heavy-weight champion of the world, having won the title the previous June when he knocked out James J. Braddock. Portsmouth, Ohio, like the rest of the nation, had not yet recovered from the Great Depression. At a time when racial discrimination was at its height and the modern Civil Rights Movement only beginning to pick up traction, Louis quickly became as an inspiration for African Americans, young and old. As Langston Hughes famously recalled, "Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of black Americans on relief or W.P.A., and poor, would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe's one-man triumphs. No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions—or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too."

Capitalizing on Joe Louis's new won fame, Hollywood movie director Harry L. Fraser would cast Louis to star in "The Spirit of Youth," which told the story of the boxer's rise from poverty and obscurity to world champion and Jazz Age celebrity life. With Louis playing himself, Fraser's production included an all black cast, making it one of the first such major Hollywood films. With Portsmouth home to one of the larger black populations in the tri-state region, and with four segregated, black-only Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps -- with some 800 black members -- located on the outskirts of the city in the Shawnee State Forest, the management of the Westland Theater planned a three-day, weekend run of the film for February 18th, 19th, and 20th, 1938. Controversially, their plans involved only special late night screenings, starting at 11pm, which marked a change from the theater's usual practice of running blockbuster films in the afternoon as matinees and as early evening feature screenings.

The Westland's plans were  seen as a change to the practice of segregation in Portsmouth's movie theaters. The Cleveland Call and Post reported that the Westland was "using this picture to foster jim-crowism by opening its doors to colored only at the unseemly hour of 11 pm for three nights." While there were no city ordinances mandating racial segregation of public spaces, a culture of Jim Crow shaped the moviegoers experience in Portsmouth. Seating, from what scanty evidence can be found in the city's newspapers, may have been segregated, with the rear and balconies of venues reserved for African Americans, but showings themselves were open to all. The Westland's plan to run Louis's film only late at night, at special showtimes was thus seen by members of Portsmouth's black community as an expansion of Jim Crow, an attempt to run special segregated screenings, at a time of day that would inconvenience many in the community.

Portsmouth's branch of the NAACP dated to the early 1920s and its role in organizing the protest against the Westland Theater marks one of the earliest known instances that the local organization initiated a direct action against a Portsmouth business owner and can be seen as harbinger of things to come, as Civil Rights activists began to increasingly challenge the practice of racial segregation in the city. The Call and Post reported that soon after Westland's "advertisement placards appeared" on Portsmouth streets one was brought to a regular meeting of the NAACP and "steps were taken at once. Notice was sent to the Daily Times newspaper of the Association's protest and to other papers." The Call and Post correspondent noted that "the Rev. B . L. Brantley will take the protest to the churches and numerous citizens have voiced their protest and indignation. Every thing is being done to make the jim crow effort a complete failure."

The Westland Theater on Second Street had been built in 1924 by J. S. Davis of New Boston and its location at the time was outside the city's theater district, which was then concentrated on Gallia Street, near the Esplanade. In 1933, the Westland was purchased by Col. Billy Rendon and J. M. Johnson, who remodeled its exterior and lobby and installed "new sound equipment, produced by the Wide Range Fidelity Co." Promoted as the "New Westland," Rendon would operate the venue as both a motion picture theater and a "family vaudeville house." As the 1930s and the Great Depression unfolded, the Westland in Portsmouth's Boneyfiddle District offered live stage productions and "the leading movie productions."

At the "New Westland" you could watch a chorus line show, such as "Hal Hoyt's Merry Whirl Revue, featuring Slim Williams and the Eight Bonnie Mack Co-Eds." Or, if your entertainment tastes favored live music, one could catch "Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, with their old time music, hill billy songs, and novelty numbers." The Westland was also rented out for political rallies, such as in October 1932, when over 400 residents gathered to hear speeches by the Socialist Party's nominees for Ohio Governor and the US Vice-Presidency. Some of the theater's film titles, with "for adults only," in their advertisements captured the seedier side of the Westland's screenings. "Scarlet Love: The Truth About Sex, with Prof. H. Paul Stroud and his Company of Hollywood Beauties," along with Dwain Esper's "Narcotic," an exploitation film, promising lurid content about drug addiction, are just two examples of "B Movies" that played at the Westland in the 1930s.

With 500 seats, the Westland was one of the larger theaters in the city, although not the most prestigious or fancy. Its regular advertisements in the Portsmouth Daily Times suggest many of its motion picture shows were second run films. But, occasionally, the Westland would be the only place in town to see a blockbuster Hollywood production and such was the case with Louis's The Spirit of Youth.

When Rev. Brantley hosted the "mass meeting" at Pleasant Green Baptist Church on Wednesday, February 9th, 1938, he was two-years into a decade-long pastorate that would run until 1945.  Throughout those years, Brantley would serve his congregation and the larger community, championing the construction of the Fourteenth Street Community Center and other civic projects for Portsmouth's North End, the city's historically black neighborhood. The mass meeting was organized by the NAACP "Youth Council" and was attended by local residents and black CCC enrollees from the camps in Shawnee State Forest. The Times would report that "the youth groups endorsed a protest by the N. A. A. C. P. to Kenneth Rader, manager of the Westland theater."

A week later, on February 16th, the Times reported that "through [the] insistence of the North End Colored Citizens' group," the Theater had agreed to arrange a Friday 2pm matinee showing. Rader told the Times that the "arranging of special 11 p.m. shows for colored folk ... was not the thought of the theater management, but simply a policy of Grand National Pictures Corp., distributor of the film." Rader explained, "naturally in towns the size of Portsmouth there is relatively small colored population for drawing power. Inasmuch as Grand National Pictures owns the film and will allow the theater to show it only through payment of percentage returns, it has been learned in other showings that the best results have been obtained by playing it at midnight shows." Westland's manager assured the readers of the Times that "the film company, the colored citizens and the management of the theater also realize that because of the limited possibilities of the picture is it necessary for his kind of showing in order that expenses might be met." Hoping to sell tickets to white moviegoers, and, what was, undoubtedly, a nod to the NACCCP, Rader insisted that "the showings are not restricted to colored folk, ... but the patronage of everyone is invited."

The Westland Theater, however, would only advertise the special 11 pm showings in the Portsmouth Times, and they ended up canceling the 11 pm screenings on Saturday and Sunday. In their print advertisement, published on February 19th, a special notice appeared that "Wide Open Faces," staring Jane Wyman (the first wife of future President Ronald Reagan), which promised "gayety and gals," would be shown "in place of [the] Joe Louis Picture."

Thus, it appears, as a result of the NAACP's protest, the Westland Theater would run the movie only twice on Friday, first as a matinee at 2 pm, followed by a late night screening, as originally planned, at 11 pm. Whether lackluster ticket sales played into the decision to cancel Saturday night's show would only be speculation, but it is clear that the protest, for all intents and purposes, appears to have succeeded. Portsmouth's opponents of Jim Crow had secured a significant victory, one that pointed to the "spirit of  youth" in the CCC camps and the North End neighborhood, as well as the important supporting roles played by the black churches of the city and their members, young and the old, who were inspired by their real life hero, Joe Louis.


"Socialists Hear Speakers. 400 Attend Meeting Here," Portsmouth Times (12 October 1932): 11.

"Maurer Will Speak Oct. 11. Socialist Candidate For Vice President Booked at Westland Theater," Portsmouth Times (7 October 1932): 38.

"New Chain to Open Westland. Rendon and Johnson Add Third Theater to their Local Holdings," Portsmouth Times (17 December 1933): 19.

"Ten Years Ago," Portsmouth Times (21 October 1934).

"Youth Groups Meet. Indorse N. A. A. C. P. Protest on Joe Louis Movie Hours," Portsmouth Times (11 February 1938): 11.

"Louis Movie to be Shown at Matinee," Portsmouth Times (16 February 1938): 14.

"Portsmouth Theatre Tries Jim-Crowism on Louis Picture," Cleveland Call and Post (17 February 1938): 11.