The Attucks Theater in Norfolk is an iconic monument to the rich cultural heritage of Church Street and the broader Black community in Norfolk. Built in 1919, the theater has served as a hub for the arts and entertainment for nearly a century, playing a critical role in the lives of community members. Today, it is the oldest theater in the country to be financed, designed, constructed, and operated exclusively by Black Americans. Harvey Johnson, the lead architect, went on to help found what became Norfolk State University.
Church Street was once a flourishing commercial thoroughfare featuring Soroko’s Market, Arthur’s Drugstore, Hollywood Photo Studio, the Greenleaf Ballroom, at least six movie theaters, and a bustling trolley line. Right in the heart of it all sat Attucks Theater. Attucks Theater and the Church Street commercial district provided a place for the Black community to gather, relax, and do business freely when the city was segregated. Its significance in the history of Norfolk is hard to understate.
The theater attracted thousands of attendees for musicals, plays, concerts, and other performances. In addition to the performances, the Attucks hosted silent movie screenings, and housed 21 offices for Black-owned businesses above the theater. Among the acts was a host of legendary performers such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Mamie Smith, Nat King Cole, and Redd Foxx. A tradition evolved over time for the acts to sign their names on the wall of the dressing room as if to mark a rite of passage.
The incredible caliber of talent that performed here earned the Attucks the title of “The Apollo of the South.” But unlike the Apollo, the Attucks was funded and designed exclusively by Black Americans, a rare occurrence at the time.
Around 1933, the Attucks converted into a full-time movie theater. For 34 years after its construction, the theatre kept its doors open but eventually ceased functioning in 1953. The desegregation of the city, aggressive urban redevelopment policies, and changing tastes in entertainment forced the slow decline of Church Street.
The Attucks was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and over the next decade, Father Joseph Green Jr. and Andrew Fine led a monumental fundraising effort to save the theater. The ultimately secured over $8 million, with $2.5 million in historic tax credits, $3 million from the City of Norfolk, and around $1.75 from individuals and corporations.
The theater re-opened in 2004 after extensive renovations. The project included a complicated heavy roof truss system and significant structural repairs to the roof and walls. An elaborately painted fire curtain depicting the death of Crispus Attucks (the theater’s namesake) during the Boston Massacre was saved and restored. The ornateness of the original theater has been brought back to life with red velvet seats, a proper balcony and box seats, detailed trim, and 20’s-inspired paint colors.
Attuck’s Theater is now owned and operated by the City of Norfolk. The theater now hosts a wide range of performances, including jazz, comedy, plays, and more. Upcoming shows can be found at SevenVenues.