1912 - Present
During the first half of the twentieth century, segregation and racist real estate practices in Kansas City forced Black families to settle into crowded residences around the 18th and Vine intersection. As the population swelled, African Americans cultivated an autonomous area that catered to the social and cultural needs of their community. By the 1920s, the flourishing district published its own newspaper and boasted social service agencies, churches, as well as hundreds of commercial shops and entertainment venues.
The Gem Theater, located at 1615 East 18th Street, stood at the center of this district. Originally called the Star Theater, the silent-movie palace was built in 1912 to entertain the growing Black population. The theater was renamed in 1913 and renovated in 1924 to accommodate over a thousand movie-goers with some of the highest quality heating, cooling, and projection systems available. By the latter half of the twentieth century, decades of racism and urban disinvestment led to the decline of Black-owned businesses, including the Gem Theater. Efforts to revitalize and memorialize the community in the 1980s led to the Gem’s restoration as a performance art and community event venue. Given a new purpose, the Gem Theater endures as a reminder of Kansas City’s historic Black Business District.
Date: 1912 - Present
Subject: Civic theater ; Municipal theater
Contributing Institution: Springfield-Greene County Library District
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Region: Kansas City Metro
Photographer: Ellie Burke
Photograph Date: 2021