Saving the Lincoln Theater in Baton Rouge

Can historical Lincoln Theater be saved?

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - For years people have talked about restoring the historic Lincoln Theater in Mid-City, but so far, the campaign has gained limited traction.

Some are wondering if the theater is on its final act. The Lincoln's Foundation Board is fighting to preserve its history.

You can find the theater at the corner of Myrtle and Eddie Robinson Drive, in south Baton Rouge. It is where history meets the arts.

"This is one of the offices, and keep in mind, we are taking everything out," said Peggy Bates with the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame.

The Lincoln Theater opened its doors in 1949. It was the brain-child of Reverend Albert Chapman. Back then it was one of three major theaters African-Americans were allowed to go to in Baton Rouge.

Bates says the Lincoln was the hottest spot around when she was a teen.

"This was the place to be on Saturday when you're out of school and you don't have anything else to do during summer vacations," said Bates. They would go and see a movie.

It only cost 75 cents to see a movie then.

But it wasn't just movies and popcorn, the building had several black-owned businesses.

Insurance companies used offices upstairs. There was a laundromat and a barber shop.

Bates says the theater gave Blacks hope in a time where hope was hard to come by.

"This was something that we owned and operated and it was for us and it wasn't something that had been left over. Nor something that we picked up because someone wasn't using it anymore," she said.

Things did change, but not without a push for equality - some coming from within the walls of the Lincoln.

During the Civil Rights era, rooms upstairs were used by Reverend T.J. Jemison and others to come up with protests and equal rights demonstrations that inspired others across the nation.

"United Defense Fund, which was the head group that started the original 1954 bus boycott, which was before Rosa Parks," said Bates.

The end of segregation was a huge accomplishment for those fighting for black rights.

But, that new-found freedom, Bates believed, was a double-edged sword.

Black people were allowed to live and go anywhere. So they started moving away from south Baton Rouge, and the building they grew to call home.

"It just became the thing to do. This had been our place, this was our salvation right here. But all of a sudden we discovered we could go to the garden. We could go to the Paramount even though it was a long time coming," said Bates.

Soon, one-by-one, things started to vanish, and so did the essence of the Lincoln. It was once called a fortress of refuge for thousands, and now it needs to be saved.

Bates is a part of the Lincoln Theater Center Foundation Board. The board has desperately tried to restore the building by trying to turn the Lincoln into the Black History Hall of Fame.

"To educate those young people. And I just don't mean African Americans, but all young people in our community who need to know what happened pre civil rights, during the civil rights struggle and what's going on now," said Bates.

The Lincoln Theater was a place where your imagination ran wild, where dreams became reality, where Black's were inspired.

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