Landmark 1911 court case challenged racism and won

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Nickelodeon – before being the home of TV’s SpongeBob SquarePants – was a type of theater.

“Odeon”: Greek for a theater. “Nickel”: American for 5 cents. A theater at 5 cents. What could be clearer than that?

So Minerva Miller, visiting a local nickelodeon in Paterson on September 22, 1911, was understandably surprised to learn that – for her – the ticket price was not a penny. It was a quarter.

“It’s an order from the boss to charge all people of color 25 cents,” cashier Lena Moore later testified in court.

Because it ended in court.

Minerva Miller didn’t pick it up. She sued – in a landmark case, the first of its kind in New Jersey. And she won.

“The case sets a precedent for the state,” said Heather Garside, curator of history at the Paterson Museum.

Heather Garside

“The fact that he’s forgotten is kind of sad,” Garside said. “It’s such an important case for race relations in the whole state of New Jersey. And it’s really sad that she is remembered so little. She was clearly a very interesting person, according to what I can find out.”

There are no photos of Minerva Miller. Not much is known about her, either before she filed her case in Passaic District Court, or in the years that followed – she died in 1921.

But what is known says a lot about conditions in Paterson – and the United States – in 1911, just 15 years after Plessy v. Ferguson made Jim Crow the custom of the country.

The Minister’s Daughter

She was the daughter of Reverend J. Harvey Anderson, an itinerant Methodist pastor.

In Paterson he was affiliated with AME Zion Godwin Street Church – now the First AME Zion Church – but he was also in high demand elsewhere. He traveled as far as New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Washington, DC And young Minerva traveled with him.

“The fact that she traveled so much, she must have seen things that made her stronger,” said Paterson historian Jimmy Richardson, author of “Slavery by the River.”

jimmy richardson

Paterson was then in its glory as America’s leading industrial city: 125,600 people lived there, many of them immigrants, working in silk mills and locomotive factories. But there was also a small (then) African-American population: about 1,500. And among them was a small but important professional class.

“There were four different [Black] doctors and justice of the peace,” Richardson said. “The fact that his father was a cabinet minister — that was probably the highest form of recognition an African American could get at the time.

So Minerva Miller would have felt entitled, as a respectable middle-class woman, to attend the moving pictures of the Paterson Show, 136 Market Street – one of the city’s four nickelodeons.

Let’s go to the movies

That too was something new. Until almost that time, movies – invented just over a decade earlier – were considered a “poor man’s show”, suitable only for children, immigrants and bums. The first storefront theaters were dirty, disreputable places.

The Nickelodeons were silent theaters where, as the name suggests, you pay a penny to enter.  This one, The Jefferson, opened in Memphis in 1908.

But by 1911, the films were beginning to make sense. Crude comedies and westerns were giving way to more intellectual fare like “David Copperfield”, “Enoch Arden” and “The Scarlet Letter” – all released in 1911. Movie theaters were becoming, if not exactly lavish, at least cozier . They were beginning to belong to the middle class.

All of which may explain why Miller, along with two other well-known ladies – probably sisters or sisters-in-law – didn’t hesitate to head to The Paterson Show, to see their latest lineup of shorts – the full-length no. hadn’t arrived yet — accompanied by a small piano.

And that may explain — but by no means excuse — the extraordinary policy of the owner, a Mr. Stapleton — we don’t know his first name.

No doubt he wanted to maintain a “respectable” establishment. And respectable people don’t mix with people of other races.

“This guy thinks if the black people come, the white people won’t,” Richardson said.

So that Friday, when Miller and his two companions went to the box office to pay their pennies, they were in for a surprise.

“They pay their 15 cents for the three of them,” Garside said. “And they’re told they didn’t pay enough because African American customers pay 25 cents each.”

That would be 75 cents in total – the equivalent, in 2022 money, of $22.20. A white person buying the same three tickets would have paid the equivalent of $4.40. It was not a case of separate but of equal. It was uneven, period.

Anyone else in the days of Jim Crow might have bitten their tongue. But Miller appears to have been a community leader, a suffragist, and someone with a highly developed sense of self-respect. She filed a complaint.

“She has the education and the means,” Richardson said. “She knew how to defend herself.”

make a case

She discovered that she had friends. Some of them were white, including Thomas Praxton, who was at the theater that day and tried to intervene.

But some of them were black residents of Paterson, who gathered to show their support, on the eve of the trial, at the Colored Men’s Association Hall on Governor Street, which is still standing. It was two years after the founding of the NAACP: the opportunities for collective action were not lost on black residents of Paterson.

“A mass meeting to protest such discrimination took place,” Garside said. According to the Passaic Daily News of November 16, 1911, two ministers were there.

Former Paterson Colored Men's Association

“The two clergymen said there is no law in the statutes of this country that allows anyone to charge a colored person a higher price for anything that is charged to a white person, and no makes it legal to charge a person of color more admission to a theater than a white person,” the journalist wrote.

The next day, November 17, the trial began in Passaic District Court.

The defense attempted to argue that since it was the cashier who refused Miller entry, it was the cashier who should be prosecuted. That’s when Moore said she was following orders from her boss.

Another attempted line of defense was that – perhaps – Miller wasn’t black after all. Praxton was brought up and asked how he knew she was an African American woman. “I know she’s a woman of color by looking at her,” he said. “And I’m sure it’s not a man.” Miller supported that. “Yes, I’m a nigger,” she said.

The prosecution based its case on an 1848 New Jersey anti-discrimination law. And at 9 a.m. on November 24, Judge Walter C. Cabell delivered his verdict.

Judge Cabell

“There is no doubt from the plaintiff’s record that the spirit of the deed as well as the letter was violated, and the person guilty of that violation should be punished,” he said. The verdict was appealed. But in June 1912, the appeal was canceled.

“Can you imagine, in the black community, when people found out that she had won her case?” said Richardson. “To see a black person, a black woman, succeed in a court case, it sets a precedent, for black people, and for white people too.”

In his ruling, Judge Cabell awarded Miller the maximum possible award: $500.

“Which doesn’t seem like a lot,” Garside said. “But that’s $14,000 in today’s money. That’s a lot of nickelodeon tickets.”

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to its insightful reports on how you spend your free time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1

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