The Dunbar-Gibson Theatre — From Banking to Theatre

After E.C. Brown was denied admittance into a theater because of his race, he was determined to open a theater in which African Americans would never be denied admittance. Along with his partner Andrew Stevens Jr. he announced in July 1918 the construction of the first black-built, black owned theater on the intersection of Broad and Lombard Streets. On December 29, 1919 the Dunbar Theatre opened its door to the public.

At the time, it seemed as if E.C. Brown and Andrew Stevens Jr. were and unstoppable combination – together, the two also owned and operated the Brown and Stevens Bank. Although the two found success as a partnership, each was individually successful. Brown was president of the largest African American realty corporation in New York City, and Stevens was the only African American member of the Pennsylvania State Republican Committee.

At first, it seemed as if the Dunbar Theatre was going to be a great success. The theater attracted the Lafayette Theatre group from Harlem; benefits for the NAACP and Marcus Garvey were held at the Dunbar Theatre, and Shuffle Along – the first all-black musical on Broadway – debuted at the Dunbar Theatre in 1932. Brown, however, soon began having troubles booking first-class entertainers, and there was little support from the African American community in Philadelphia. In 1921, Brown and Stevens were forced to sell the Dunbar Theatre, and John T. Gibson purchased and re-opened the doors a year later as the Gibson Theatre.

John T. Gibson, also the owner of the Gibson’s Standard Theatre located on the 1100 block of South Street, became the wealthiest African American in Philadelphia after he purchased the Dunbar Theatre. Gibson strategically operated the two theaters by holding larger shows and events at the Dunbar Theatre and smaller shows and comedies at the Gibson’s Standard Theatre.

John T. Gibson offered a venue where African Americans living in Philadelphia could enjoy black entertainers, in an African American owned theater. African American entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Lena Home, Paul Robeson, and the Nicholas Brothers all performed at the Gibson Theatre.

When the Great Depression hit, Gibson lost the Gibson Theatre and the Philadelphia African American community could no longer enjoy live entertainment in an African American owned and operated theater. The Gibson Theatre was bought by white owners and renamed the Lincoln – in 1932.




12th & South Streets

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