Northwood Theatre

In 1963, a man blocks the entrance to the Northwood Theater where some 150 members of the Civic Interest Group demonstrated last night. All were arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct during the protest against segregation at the theater. (William L. LaForce/The Baltimore Sun / February 16, 2013)

Movie tickets at the Northwood Theatre cost just 90 cents back in 1963. But for some, the price of admission was considerably higher.

It took years of picketing and nights in jail for hundreds of African-American college students and their supporters before the theater in the Hillen neighborhood of Baltimore dropped its whites-only policy. Fifty years ago this week, the matinee of the Disney movie "In Search of the Castaways" played to the Northwood's first-ever integrated audience.

"It was just something in my opinion that needed to be done," said Joyce I. Dennison, 71, who, as a student at Morgan State College, joined the protests that led to the theater's desegregation on Feb. 22, 1963.

"You say you want to open a facility to the public — we are part of the public."

Half a century later, the integration of a small neighborhood movie house that closed in 1981 might seem a minor footnote in the sweep of civil rights history. It was not Brown v. Board of Education or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yet, for those who pounded the pavement, staged sit-ins or languished in jail for the simple, day-to-day access to movie theaters or lunch counters, the Northwood victory remains a sweet one.

"It took a lot longer than perhaps we would have wished," said the Rev. Douglas Sands, 78, who first began protesting at the Northwood in the 1950s as a Morgan student. "But because of that, it did a lot for a generation of us. We got to know each other, and there was a lot of community-building.

"We had people from Loyola, from Johns Hopkins, Goucher," said Sands, who leads the White Rock Methodist Church in Sykesville. "It was a training ground for so many comrades in the struggle."

Dennison, who went on to become a schoolteacher and staff sergeant in the Army, was among the final wave of protesters who brought the long-running Northwood fight to an end. After years of smaller demonstrations that failed to get the theater to relent, organizers decided that only a larger show of resistance would bring about change.

By early 1963, activists in Baltimore had won access to the Read's Drug Store fountains and to Ford's Theatre downtown, where African-Americans had had to climb a back staircase to sit in a segregated balcony.

But the Northwood's management stubbornly refused to budge, even as other businesses in the shopping center dropped their resistance.

Day after day, for about a week, hundreds of picketers marched on the theater. Police started to run out of vehicles to transport those arrested, and the city's jails overflowed.

With Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations supporting the demonstrators, and with civic leaders tiring of the turmoil, the theater's management dropped trespassing and disorderly-conduct charges and agreed to open its doors to all.

A picture widely circulated at the time shows Dennison and a Goucher student sitting in jail, studiously reading textbooks as they bided their time for their civil disobedience. Dennison thinks the books came from Morgan's strict dean of women, who visited throughout what turned out to be a three-night stint in jail.

"She did not accept being in prison as an excuse for not studying," Dennison said wryly.

Coming from Kennett Square, Pa., with its long history of Quaker activism, Dennison said she was naturally drawn to the protests. But as the first member of her family to go to college, she didn't let on to her parents how she was spending her free time.

"I think our parents were very supportive, but also fearful," Dennison said. "A lot of us had grandparents who were, 'Just be patient. Things will change in time.' Or, 'There's no chance of you winning this argument.'

"My generation was a little more rebellious," she said.

The memories came back last week when she viewed an exhibit, curated by University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, on Morgan State's role in the civil rights movement.

In 1963, Gibson said, the college was in something of an awkward position: generally supportive of the demonstrators, but wary of the cost of raising too much of a ruckus.