CARBONDALE — In the fall of 1953, Dick Gregory performed a radical act: he took a seat in the lower portion of the segregated Varsity Theatre.
Gregory, a pioneering comedian and civil rights activist, attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on a track scholarship from 1952 to 1956. He passed away this past August.
Now called The Varsity Center, the historic movie house was significant to Gregory during his time at SIU, according to academic historian Edward Schmitt.
“Being in Carbondale was really the first time he lived, worked among, competed with white people as the majority, which is what the white society obviously was. Where he grew up in St. Louis was an all-black neighborhood because it was de facto segregated. … I think the theater was a safe place, it was an escape,” he said.
Schmitt, an associate professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, has been working on a major biography of Gregory for the past five years and visited Carbondale on a research trip this week.
Gregory was a regular audience member at The Varsity, Schmitt said. In the spring of 1953, it was where Leland “Doc” Lingle, the legendary SIU track coach, found Gregory to inform him of his mother’s death.
“The fact that a tragic moment in his life occurred or he found out about it here, was a turning point, because his father really wasn’t present in his life, so he was kind of without a parent after that,” Schmitt said.
Months later, Gregory forced the integration of seating at the theater. Before he took a stand on the issue, people of color were required to sit in the balcony.
“He was very popular as a student and just as a person, so it wasn’t just African-Americans, there were white students who rallied to it too, and it made change,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt spent two full days with Gregory in September 2016, recording seven hours of interviews.
“His mind was so electric. He could pull things out and move from one episode to another, and it was just kind of fun to be along for a ride with it,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt met up with Gregory a few times after that initial interview, and in August, two days before Gregory was hospitalized, the pair spent an afternoon together.
“I actually think I might have been the last one to interview him, so I still am kind of blown away by that — just the opportunity. But he was still sharp. He was tired, but still had stories to share,” Schmitt said.
During his visit to The Varsity on Friday, Schmitt said he was struck by the size of The Varsity’s now-defunct lower auditorium, where Gregory took a stand for equality.
“That’s what I was hoping for, just to be in the space and to get that sense of how it took some courage to do that,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt hopes to complete his manuscript by the first anniversary of Gregory’s death this summer.