Backstory and Context
The theater was named in honor of Crispus Attucks, an African American sailor in the colonial period and one of five American colonists who lost their lives in the Boston Massacre. The theater was designed by local black architect Harvey Johnson and opened in 1919. The institution served as one of the anchors of Church Street, which was known as the "Main Street" of Norfolk's black community in the first half of the 20th century.
Although there are a handful of African American theaters and performing arts companies that predate the Attucks Theatre, it has the distinction of being the oldest remaining structure of its kind to be financed, built, and operated entirely by African Americans. The theater was operated by the Twin Cities Amusement Corporation-an organization headed by black businessmen that included theaters in both Portsmouth and Norfolk. The theater was constructed thanks to loans from two black financial institutions, the Brown Savings Bank and the Tidewater Trust Company.
The theater offered a respite from racial segregation that had been practiced in Norfolk long before it became required by law by the state legislature in 1926. After 34 years of operation, the theater closed in 1953. During those years, many famous African American singers such as Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington performed at the Attucks Theatre. The African American public schools in the region used the theater for graduation and other events, as did local organizations that provided educational and cultural opportunities for members of Norfolk's black population.
During its years as a theater, the building also held the offices of several black physicians, attorneys, and other professionals--a function that continued after the theater ceased operations. In 1977, Congress declared that the theater was a National Historic Landmark, a designation that along with the actions of former vice-mayor Joseph N. Green, Jr., may have saved the aging structure from demolition. Local residents were able to preserve the theater's original fire curtain, which was significant owing to the fact that it had been hand-painted to feature a dramatic scene depicting the death of Crispus Attucks. It would take many years to restore the structure, however. Thanks to several private-public partnerships, the building was preserved during the 1980s and eventually restored to its original glory. The theater reopened in 2004 and is one of the members of SevenVenues, the civic organization that operates Chrysler Hall, Wells Theatre, Harrison Opera House, Harbor Park, Scope Arena, and the Prism Theatre in addition to Attucks. Visitors and residents can click the links below to see the current schedule of events and shows being held at the Attucks Theater.