Map from White and Bernstein's research on segregated cinemas in Atlanta.

The Lost Picture Show: Remapping the Cinema Landscape of Segregated Atlanta

How did Atlantans experience Jim Crow?

With help from the Digital Atlanta Geocoder, two Emory University historians have explored patterns of moviegoing in Atlanta between 1895 and the civil rights era. In the forthcoming Atlanta at the Movies (2016), a volume of collected essays, and Segregated Cinema (2018), a comprehensive monograph, urban historian Dana White and film historian Matthew Bernstein use cinemas as windows into the complicated history of race in Atlanta. In particular, they look at the ways cinema reinforced, challenged, or nuanced Jim Crow and racial identity in Atlanta’s history. Their books will address, among other topics, the location of theaters, the practice of segregated seating, the distribution and scheduling of Hollywood productions across the color line, the presentation of race films in Atlanta, box office and audience responses to films in “white” and “colored” venues, and the censorship of films that appeared to challenge Jim Crow ideology.

Map from White and Bernstein's research on segregated cinemas in Atlanta.

To understand the intersection between race and cinemas in Atlanta, White and Bernstein needed to know the locations and Jim Crow status of each cinema. Some theaters served only white customers, others only black customers, and a third group offered segregated seating. They identified most of the cinema names and addresses through historical city directories. They next located the theaters on a map using different colored pins to indicate the Jim Crow status. While that research approach appears fairly straightforward, it quickly becomes anything but. Changes in the names and locations of streets present the first problem. Second, even the complete map offers very limited information. Finally, the map is static. Once they removed the pins, the map was gone. In the end, their map confirmed the assumption that most black theaters were located in the black entertainment district around Decatur Street, but how could they produce a map to offer new information about race and cinema in the history of Atlanta?

In 2010, Michael Page and Randy Gue of Emory Libraries conceptualized and proposed to build a historical geodatabase and accompanying spatial history tools to enable scholars and the historically-inclined public to explore Atlanta circa 1930. The undertaking required the digitization of a comprehensive city atlas and city directories of the same vintage. Re-mapping the city and converting city directories into a searchable geocoder took several years, and, upon its completion, the Digital Atlanta Geocoder included over 78,000 entries of inhabitants and businesses that were attached to the feature geometries of building footprints and other points of interest. White and Bernstein’s research on cinemas provided an ideal opportunity to to test the geocoder’s capabilities.

Atlanta White Cinemas (1928)

Atlanta Black Cinemas (1928)

With the completed geocoder, the process of locating cinemas in Atlanta in 1928 required hardly any work. The geocoder already includes the location of every identifiable entry in the city directory, so searching for the name “theatre” results in all twenty-eight of the theaters listed in the 1928 directory. Additional cinemas undoubtedly existed in Atlanta in 1928, and users will be able to help us further develop the map, but this search quickly located the majority of theaters.

Even if the geocoder did no more than locate individual points of interest, it would save an extraordinary amount of time for researchers. Once new variables are incorporated, though, the geocoder will allow researchers to ask new and interesting questions. Other attributes that the project’s developers hope to add include the Jim Crow status of theaters, the names and identities of their management, their capacity, their construction dates, and possibly even which films were shown at particular times. Most obviously, this information will allow users to better understand how Jim Crow operated in 1928 Atlanta. A movie schedule would also indicate the local distribution network (since reels for each film passed from one cinema to another), the staying power of some films, and the balance between Hollywood productions and race films in African American cinemas.

The true potential of the geocoder becomes most evident when comparing cinema locations with the broader data within the geocoder. For example, neighborhood theaters reflected the expansion of Atlanta’s streetcar suburbs. A researcher might therefore investigate the population density around particular theaters, indicating the accessibility of entertainment for white and black audiences. Expanding beyond cinemas entirely, the geocoder will point out how various industries and businesses adapted to the emerging automobile culture. The geocoder offers a model to be replicated for other years in Atlanta’s history or for other cities around the world, making possible a more precise picture of urban development.

Even limiting the data to locations of 1928 theaters displays interesting information for students of Atlanta history. We see a large concentration of theaters in the city center with a number of neighborhood theaters extending far from downtown. On the eve of the Great Depression, when Atlanta’s population topped a quarter-million, the city supported a theater for every 10,000 residents. Entertainment could not be far separated from the area around Five Points, reflecting the pre-automobile transportation structure in which downtown stood at the center of a network of rails and streetcars. The theaters were within easy walking distance from both Terminal and Union Stations and streetcars radiated from downtown to the outer reaches of the city. We also see numerous theaters on the periphery of Atlanta, reflecting the growth of suburban neighborhoods. The city directory listed only Bailey’s 81 Theatre, the Paramount Theatre, and the Strand Theatre as “colored,” a reflection less of the patronage of the theaters than of slipshod accounting for Jim Crow in the city directory. Each of the three stood at the heart of the African American commercial district.

A quick comparison between theater locations in 1928 with 1918 and 1938 indicates the movement of cinemas from the city center toward the periphery, likely due to population growth, changes in transportation, the growth of neighborhood commerce, and new entertainment business models. The 1918 directory already listed twenty-four theaters, demonstrating the appeal of movies in the early twentieth century. The concentration of theaters in 1918 differed markedly from the beginnings of dispersal in 1928. Of the twenty-four theaters in 1918, all but five were a very short walk from Five Points. Despite a decade of economic turmoil, the directory listed forty-two theaters in 1938 with six specified as “colored” (though, as with other years, that count was inaccurate). Twelve theaters remained a short walk from Five Points and another three, all African American theaters, were within a mile from the city center. An additional twelve theaters stood within a two-mile radius from Five Points, while seven theaters were at least five miles away.

Atlanta White Cinemas (1918)

Atlanta White Cinemas (1938)

Atlanta Black Cinemas (1918)

Atlanta Black Cinemas (1938)

The diffusion of Atlanta’s cinemas reflected a wide variety of changes. The most obvious explanation, population growth, tells only part of the story. Though the population increased by 50%, or 100,000 residents, between 1920 and 1940, residential expansion occurred gradually. If population density were the only or primary explanation for the diffusion of cinemas, theaters would have spread much earlier. In addition to population growth, we must also look for changes in transportation, in the growth of neighborhood commerce, and in the business models of cinemas. In Automobile Age Atlanta, Howard Preston identifies the 1920s as the turning point for the street railway, when its rapid growth in popularity slowed and then began to decline. Vehicle registration, on the other hand, more than tripled during the decade. Not coincidentally, many neighborhood commercial centers arose during the 1920s, partly due to suburbanization and partly to the enhanced mobility provided by automobiles.

Maps necessarily distort space according to the goals or preconceptions of the mapmakers. Even if that were considered a problem, no technological changes could overcome the need to selectively render data. The advantage of GIS over thumbtacks or their online equivalents is the ability to use data and visualization to ask new and different questions. Rather than correlate the diffusion of cinemas with population growth, you might test a wide range of other factors including the miles of roadways, whether those roads were paved, or the travel time and cost of using public transportation. The project will allow users to query the geodatabase for the infrastructure of Atlanta, for cultural sites, or even for waterways. Because the goal was to create a tool to help students, scholars, and the public explore and analyze the history of Atlanta rather than to make a particular historical argument, it will include data that users might not have considered when framing their research questions. The location of manhole covers, for example, might lead to a revolutionary understanding of urban infrastructure. The Digital Atlanta Geocoder offers the public a tool to reimagine the city’s history in all its complexity and interconnections.

Citation: Libson, Scott. “The Lost Picture Show: Remapping the Cinema Landscape of Segregated Atlanta.” Atlanta Studies. January 30, 2015.