Jenkins Greek Theatre and North Court: Race, Racism, and Performance
Backstory and Context
Looking down over to your right is the grass staircase that leads to the Jenkins Greek Theatre. Named after Luther H. Jenkins, Richmond book manufacturer and trustee, the Greek Theatre has been home to a variety of performances since its creation in 1929. Each of these performances, from beauty pageants to May Day festivals, foregrounded whiteness. During the May Day festival, which persisted into the 1970s, students crowned a Westhampton college woman as a modern-day Pocahontas.1 May Day was a celebration of spring derived from Anglo-Saxon tradition and underwent a resurgence in the late 19th century as a way to introduce an alternative “wholesome play” to young people. The renewal of this tradition reached popularity on women’s college campuses, including U of R, in which “the children of wealthy families donned white outfits and danced traditional folk dances.”2 These performances allowed white students to come together and promote traditional gender roles and standards of Eurocentric beauty.
While the Greek Theatre was home to such performances of racism and sexism, it was also the site where the University of Richmond’s first female African American students, Isabelle Sevilla Thomas and Madeith Malone, performed in the early 1970s. Thomas and Malone first enrolled at the University of Richmond in 1968. Thomas was a Russian Studies major who participated in the Westhampton Glee Club. Malone also was a member of the Westhampton Glee Club, and was the first black woman to join UR Players, the University’s student-run theatre organization. These women broke barriers in the performing arts community. At the 50th Anniversary Commemoration in November 2018 honoring several of the first black students at the University, Malone stated that her participation in the theatre program was one of the highlights of her time in college, where the focus of art and music was on talent rather than “superficial things like what you look like.”3
Both women spent much time in North Court, which is located directly next to the Jenkins Greek Theatre. North Court was the first building constructed on the Westhampton side of campus. While attending school in a majority white space, Thomas and Malone also performed in spaces that historically housed blackface minstrel shows put on by Westhampton women in the decades before desegregation. Although now serving as a co-ed dorm in which students live and interact, many aspects of North Court’s history remain hidden, especially pertaining to the lives of Thomas and Malone.
2 Grant, Jordan. "May Day: America's Traditional, Radical, Complicated Holiday, Part 1." National Museum of American History. March 29, 2017. Accessed December 02, 2018. http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/may-day-americas-traditional-radical-complicated-holiday-part-1.
3 Millerchip, Alice. "University Celebrates and Honors First Three African American Students 50 Years Later." The Collegian, November 5, 2018. https://www.thecollegianur.com/article/2018/11/university-celebrates-and-honors-first-three-african-american-students-50-years-later.