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The Colored Only Balcony

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My job is simple and I hate it. Every night before the featured film at the Roxanne Theater in Indianapolis, I stand at the bottom of a stairway and direct all the colored people to seats in the balcony.

I'm an usherette. I wear a bell-boy uniform that makes me look like the “Call for Phillip Morris” cigarette bell-boy on TV. The uniform is not why I hate my job.

The Roxanne was converted from burlesque to a movie theater about five years ago. The whites have 200 seats downstairs; the coloreds have seventy-five seats in the “Colored Only Balcony.” Tonight, the feature film is The Robe, starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons.

It’s my experience that once the colored people see the “Colored Only Sign” at the stairway, they go upstairs without hesitation.  Once in a great while, a colored will head for the main floor, but usually it’s because they are distracted by their kids or an over-flowing bag of popcorn. I intercept them and direct them to the balcony.

When I was assigned the job, I asked Mr. Grover, my boss, what I should do if a colored refused to sit in the balcony. Mr. Grover said that I shouldn’t worry.

“The coloreds know their place,” he said.

He explained that the only problem is the drinking fountain.

“The colored drinking fountain tends to break down,” he said, “and then the coloreds want to use the white's fountain." In that case, Mr. Grover said, he sends an usherette to the fountain with a wash rag and bleach with instructions to clean it after it is used by a colored person.

Honestly, I have never noticed a difference between the reactions of the people downstairs from the people upstairs as they watch a movie. They laugh at the same time. They cry during the same scenes. Both floors cheer when the good guy beats the bad guy.

Tonight, a young white man, wearing an Indiana University sweatshirt, insisted that I allow him to sit in the balcony with the coloreds. I called for Mr. Grover, who told the man that, "The balcony is reserved for colored people.”

The white man replied sternly, “They are not colored. They are Negroes.”

Mr. Grover paused and then quietly said to the man, “If you want to sit with the… Negroes, go right ahead.”

Later, Mr. Grover told me that he had outsmarted the man.

"He is one of those agitators. He wanted me to keep him out of the balcony, but I didn't. So now he has nothing to complain about.”

Well, here I am: a non-agitating, twenty-three-year-old, white woman, treating colored people like dirty, sub-humans, when I know they are just regular people. But even that isn't why I hate my job.

I hate my job because, if the truth was known, I would be made to sit in the balcony. I am a Negro, living my life as a white woman. I have a light complexion and I spend hours straightening my hair. I have taught myself to talk like a northerner, not like the daughter of a Mississippi share cropper. I live on the white side of town and force a chuckle when a co-worker tells a racist joke.

I am a traitor to my race. I shuffle my people into a balcony of bigotry because I want to keep a good job. I want a man who has a good job. I want my kids to make something out of themselves and I want to sit downstairs.

I feel trapped and my heart breaks every day. My grandfather would be ashamed of me if he knew my secret. He raised me and loves me. He broke his body working twelve hours a day behind a mule to put food on our table.

I am going to get to know that man wearing the Indiana University sweatshirt when he leaves the theater tonight. I don’t know his name, but I know the suffering deep in his soul that drove him into the balcony. Like me, he passes himself off as white.

Maybe we can make a life together.




Jay Hogan uncovers short stories as he meanders about in old memories. He may be contacted at




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