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Historic Hotels and Theaters of Charleston West Virginia
Item 4 of 11
This location, which is now a parking garage, was the site of the Rialto Theater. The theater was built in 1917. This theater differed from other theaters in Charleston at that time because patrons entered the theater "sideways." Instead of walking forward to the counter and the movie screens, moviegoers had to turn left to get to the movie screens and right to go to the balcony which was set up in tiers. The Rialto is significant as the site where African Americans protested the 1925 opening of a controversial movie.

  • Film Poster
  • First page of a letter from Pastor M.W. Johnson of First Baptist Church to Mr. Walter F. White discussing the protest and the chapters of N.A.A.C.P.
  • Second page of letter
  • Newspaper article reporting about the Birth of a Nation and the protest to ban the film
On April 1, 1925, D. W. Griffith's controversial film, Birth of a Nation, was scheduled to open at the Rialto Theatre in Charleston. In late March, several African-American leaders protested showing of the film on the grounds it violated a 1919 state law prohibiting any entertainment which demeaned another race. Mayor W. W. Wertz and the West Virginia Supreme Court supported their argument and prevented the showing of the film.

The movie was supposed to be a three-day engagement at the Rialto Theater. Upon hearing this, attorney T.G. Nutter, along with other activists, vowed to block the film from being shown. They argued that the film not only showed African Americans in a bad light but also glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

Nutter took his fight to the mayor of Charleston at the time, W.W. Wertz, and he did not go alone. Nutter was joined by the state supervisor for black schools, W.W. Saunders, and G.E. Ferguson, operator of the Ferguson Hotel. They plead that not only did this film go against the 1919 state law in which a race or class of people is demeaned in a form of entertainment, but it also violated the city statute that stated that it was forbidden to show any film that was judged to be immoral or indecent. The mayor heard their case and sided with Nutter and the other protesters. He not just banned the film, but let the theater staff know that he would arrest them if the film was shown.

When hearing this, Rialto management was not pleased and decided to take the case to court. They ended up obtaining an injunction to Mayor Wertz's ruling. As a result, the movie was shown twice on April 1. The Kanawha County Circuit Court decided to dissolve the injunction and banned any further showings. From there, the Rialto Theater took the case to the West Virginia Supreme Court for an appeal. The West Virginia Supreme Court backed the 1919 law and the circuit court rulings and did not allow the movie to be shown ever again.

This is the first major civil rights victory of many for T.G. Nutter. Nutter went on to lead the Charleston and state chapters of the N.A.A.C.P.

The Rialto Theater was demolished decades ago. The site is now a parking garage. 
"Time Trail, West Virginia, April 1998 Programs." West Virginia Division of Culture and History. West Virginia Archives and History, n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. .