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Don’t Mess With Minerva Miller – Podcast #157

A warning about this story: You may find a few of the words unacceptable by today’s standards, but I have opted to quote them exactly as they were stated more than a century ago.

Just for a moment, take a step back from today’s modern life and try to imagine a world without moving pictures. No Zoom meetings. No YouTube clips. No television shows. No motion pictures. No Loony Tunes cartoons.

Seems like an impossibility, but that would have been the world that nearly every human being on planet Earth would have been born into at the turn of the 20th century.

The origin of the moving image traces its roots back to 1872 when railroad tycoon and then California governor Leland Stanford hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to create a portfolio depicting his mansion and other possessions, which included his racehorse Occident. In particular, Stanford desired a picture of Occident running at full speed, an image that would truly depict the motion of a horse. This sounds simple by today’s standards, but keep in mind that snapping photographs in the 1800s required exposure times of many seconds. If anything in the image moves during that time, like a galloping horse, the image would be blurred.

Eadweard Muybridge - 1899
1899 photograph of Eadweard Muybridge. Wikipedia image.

Muybridge was up for the challenge. His first effort was, as one would anticipate, a small and blurry image, but it did finally provide Stanford with an image of his horse running. Muybridge continued to improve on his technique and in July 1877, a photograph of Occident running at full speed went public and created a bit of a sensation. The problem was that the image was still a bit blurry and was retouched, which led to some critics claiming that it was fake.

On June 15, 1878, Muybridge invited the press and others to witness his latest attempt to capture a horse in motion. The location was Stanford’s newly acquired 650-acre Palo Alto Stock Farm.

(Sidenote: Stanford would later acquire an additional 8,000 acres surrounding the farm. It was on this land that Stanford and his wife Jane would establish Stanford University in 1885 to honor their only child, 15-year-old Leland Stanford, Jr, who had passed away the previous year from typhoid fever.)

Muybridge set up twelve cameras along the farm’s racetrack, each rigged with a tripwire. As the horse ran and triggered each camera, a sequential series of photographs were produced. The skeptics were finally convinced that Muybridge had captured the images of a horse in motion.

Yet, reproductions of his images were not actually in motion. Each set of images was reproduced on a singular cabinet card and distributed. One had to imagine that the horse was in motion.

The Horse in Motion: “Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford; running at a 1.40 gait over the Palo Alto track, 19th June 1878. Wikipedia image.

Muybridge’s solution was to have silhouettes of his photos copied onto a disk which would then be viewed in a machine that he invented and coined the “zoopraxiscope.” For the first time, one could see an image in motion. Very primitive but moving pictures had been invented.

There’s debate over when the first movie theater opened. Pantomimes Lumineuses, an animated movie created by Émile Reynaud, is probably the best bet. It was first screened at Musée Grévin in Paris on October 28, 1892.

The Paterson Show

Jump forward to 1905 when John P. Harris and Henry Davis opened the first theater dedicated to showing movies only. That meant no dancers, singers, comedians, musical acts, or any other form of entertainment. 100% movies, 100% of the time. Located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, admission to the theater was one nickel – five cents – so they coined it the Nickelodeon. It was a phenomenal success and within a few years, thousands of similar theaters popped up across the United States.

One of these early theaters was The Paterson Show, which was located at 136 Market Street in Paterson, New Jersey. An October 5, 1909, press release regarding its opening read, in part, “The policy will be that all of the newest and latest moving pictures will be shown, as soon as they are out, and also all of the latest illustrated songs. They will cater to ladies and children.” The article concludes, “the price of admission is five cents and you can go in anytime and stay as long as you wish. Don’t fail to visit this cosy little amusement palace.” Adjusted for inflation, five cents is approximately $1.41 today.

The exact ownership of The Paterson Show is unclear. A bit of detective work suggests that the theater was owned by Greek immigrant Christopher Stampul (Stasinopulos) and managed by Peter Adams (Panagiotis A Adamopoulos) and his brother Adam A. Adams. It’s possible that they all had a partnership in the business, but the show license was in Stampul’s name.

An advertisement in the Friday, September 22, 1911, edition of the Paterson Evening News read: “Paterson’s Handsome Moving Picture Theater – The Paterson Show – Newest and Latest Moving Pictures Shown Daily. Program Changes Every Day. It’s a Comfortable Place to Spend an Hour. Illustrated Songs and Good Music. 136 Market Street, City Hall Square.”

Advertisement for The Paterson Show that appeared on page 6 of the September 22, 1911, publication of the Paterson Evening News.
Advertisement for The Paterson Show that appeared on page 6 of the September 22, 1911, publication of the Paterson Evening News.

It seemed as if the theater was welcome to anyone who was willing to pay. That seemed true until Mrs. Minerva Miller walked up to the ticket booth that very day with two women identified only as Miss Anderson and Mrs. Newman. Minerva handed the ticket clerk, Mrs. Lena Moore, fifteen cents. The math seemed simple: three patrons at five cents apiece equals fifteen cents. Yet, she had calculated wrong. Mrs. Moore informed Minerva that it would cost her twenty-five cents ($7.05 today) to enter the theater. When Minerva questioned why, Mrs. Moore replied, “It is the order of the boss to charge all colored people twenty-five cents.”

Minerva was not willing to pay the twenty-five cents, but there was little that she could do about it at the time. So, she walked to the far end of the block, to the intersection of Market and Main streets, where she met up with a white acquaintance named Thomas Praxton. She explained to him what had just transpired, and he assured Minerva that he could get her into the theater. The two walked back to the theater where, once again, Minerva Miller was denied admittance. In addition, Thomas Praxton was also refused.

Minerva Miller Decides to Fight Back

The Paterson Show had just made a big mistake: they chose to mess with Minerva Miller. Not only was she the daughter of a well-known minister, but Minerva was also the president of the local African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’s Women’s Home and Overseas Missionary Society. In other words, Mrs. Miller had clout in the local African American community, and she decided to fight back against the theater’s racist policy.

Minerva’s solution was to use the power of the legal system to fight this injustice. She hired Paterson lawyer Robert F. Buckley. On November 2, 1911, he filed paperwork with the district court in nearby Passaic charging The Paterson Show with unlawful discrimination. He based the case on the theater’s violation of the 1884 New Jersey statute titled “An act to protect citizens in their civil and legal rights.”

The law reads, in part:

“That all persons within the jurisdiction of the state of New Jersey shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters and other places of public amusement, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to citizens of every race, and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.

“That any person who shall violate the foregoing section by denying to any citizen, except for reasons by law applicable to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude, the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges in said section enumerated, or by aiding or inciting such denial, shall, for every such offense, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered in an action of debt, with full cost, and shall also, for every such offense, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than five hundred dollars nor more than one thousand dollars, or shall be imprisoned not less than thirty days nor more than one year.”

I’m not a lawyer but I play one on this podcast. Therefore, I am fully qualified to say that this case should be a slam dunk for Attorney Buckley. The theater clearly violated this law, and they should be forced to pay. But I am judging this case with my 21st-century viewpoint.

By 1911, it had been well established in previous court decisions throughout the United States that it was perfectly permissible for the proprietor of a theater or similar type establishment to segregate their audiences. White people in one section, minorities in another. Yet, no one within the state of New Jersey had ever challenged discrimination by charging members of one race more than another for the same service. And that was the basis for Minerva Miller’s lawsuit.

From the outset, it appeared that the case was stacked against Mrs. Miller. The case was assigned to Virginia-born Judge Walter Carrington Cabell to decide, whose father had fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In addition, Cabell was appointed to the bench by then New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, the only US President to have been a subject of the Confederacy and a known segregationist. There was to be no jury, the case was solely up to Judge Cabell to decide. The judge, the lawyers for both sides, and the defendants were all white. And Minerva Miller was not.

She may not have had much of a chance in court, but Paterson’s black community strongly supported her. On November 15, many of these supporters attended a protest at the Colored Men’s Association Hall at 159 Governor Street in Paterson, a building that still stands today. Minerva’s husband, Lewis Miller, explained her case to the audience. Two prominent clergymen, Reverend Thomas H. Amos and Reverend Charles C. Williams both spoke out against the theater’s practice and insisted that no law allowed for the charging of black citizens higher ticket prices.

The First Court Hearing

Two days later, Judge Cabell began the proceedings, and his courtroom was packed with people. As soon as the case opened, Joseph Carroll, attorney for the defense, stood up and asked for the case to be dismissed. He argued that the theater did not deny Minerva entrance to the theater. All she had to do was pay the 25-cents and she would have been admitted. In addition, since she opted not to purchase a ticket, she had not entered into a contract with the theater and had no basis for the suit.

Judge Cabell wanted to hear more before he made a decision. He asked Minerva’s lawyers, attorneys Buckley and Joseph Feurrey, to explain how the theater’s actions violated the law. Feurrey then proceeded to read the text of the 1884 New Jersey statute. Upon conclusion of the reading, Judge Cabell commented that there was nothing in that law that prevented a proprietor from denying anyone entrance into his establishment. If the owner wished to turn someone away, they appeared to have every right to do so.

Judge Cabell also seemed a bit perturbed when Minerva’s attorney Robert Buckley stated that they had already planned to appeal the decision, even though one had yet to be handed down. In addition, Cabell seemed to imply that there was no case here but did question the meaning of one phrase in the law: “Subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law.” Neither side was prepared to explain what these conditions and limitations were, so he instructed both sides to submit briefs to him within one week.

Back in Court

At 2 PM on Friday, November 24, 1911, everyone piled back into Judge Cabell’s courtroom. This time, no one was going anywhere until the case was decided. An article in the next day’s Morning Call newspaper stated, “The case was one of the most dramatic ever tried in Passaic.”

Minerva Miller was the first witness called to the stand and told the story of how she had gone to the theater with two friends and was told that the admission price was twenty-five cents, how she then went and sought the assistance of Thomas Praxton, and of how they were both then denied admission.

Praxton was the next witness for the plaintiff. He stated, “I told Mrs. Miller that I could get her in for five cents,” but when he placed his nickel down at the cashier’s counter, she refused him entry also.

How do you know she’s a colored woman?

During cross-examination, attorney Carroll attempted to prove that Minerva Miller was not a black woman because she “had some white blood in her.” And, logically, if she was not black, then no discrimination could have taken place.

When questioned as to how Mr. Praxton could be certain that Mrs. Miller was a black woman, he replied, “I can tell she is colored by looking at her.”

Mr. Carroll then asked, “Well how do you know she’s a colored woman?”

Praxton gave the perfect reply, “I’m sure she’s not a man.”

Mrs. Miller was then called back to the stand. When Attorney Carroll questioned her as to her race, Minerva replied, “Yes, I am a negro and you can tell it by the flat nose and kinky hair.”

Clearly, this line of questioning was going nowhere, so the defense changed its argument and moved to have the case thrown out simply because the suit should have been brought against the cashier and not against the theater’s proprietor, Chris Stampul. Judge Cabell didn’t agree.

Carroll’s next line of argument was that Minerva was not denied entrance to the theater because of her race, but simply because the theater was full. To prove this, he called ticket clerk Lena Moore to the stand. She stated, “We never refuse admission, unless the theater is crowded, and then I am required to stop the sale of tickets until the crowd goes out. This was the case on that particular evening.” Mrs. Moore said that she remembered the evening well, based on the movie that had been playing, but had no recollection of Minerva Miller because all black women looked alike to her. She also denied ever telling anyone that the theater charged black patrons more than white patrons.

To back up this claim, theater manager Peter Adams testified that no one was ever denied admission unless he or she “was intoxicated or crazy.” Of course, Minerva wasn’t denied admission. The argument here was that she was being charged more simply because of the color of her skin.

The defense’s last witness was Robert Taylor, a real estate and insurance agent. Mr. Taylor was a frequent customer at the theater, and he just happened to be in the ticket booth when Minerva handed over payment for admission to Lena Moore. Taylor told of how Mrs. Moore informed Minerva that there were “no seats” and how she then went on to explain that Mr. Adams told her that the theater was full.

To refute this claim that Minerva Miller had been denied admittance solely because The Paterson Show was full, the plaintiffs called two additional witnesses.

Mrs. Anna Ray testified how she, along with her husband, had gone to the theater the night before the alleged incident. Mr. Ray proceeded to set fifty cents down on the ticket counter and was surprised that he received no change back. When he inquired as to wh,y they were told that the theater charges twenty-five cents for black patrons.

Next up was a Mr. Henderson, who testified that he had also been there the previous evening when twenty-five cents admission was being charged. After being refused entrance, he spoke to Sheriff John Rancier, who told Henderson to try again. He was once again refused admittance.

Closing Argument

After all of the witnesses had completed their testimony and the lawyers from both sides quoted legal cases from other states, it was time for closing statements. Minerva’s attorney, Robert F. Buckley, delivered a very powerful summation:

“Any discrimination founded upon the race or color of the citizen is unjust and cruel, and can have no sanction in the law of the state. If the rights and privileges of the colored citizen are to be restricted by the whims and at the pleasure of those who engage in public business, and who solicit public patronage, as had been done by the defendant in this case, then the rights of the colored citizen in the great freedom to him of which we boast will soon be relegated to oblivion, and the shackles of slavery will again be welded on this unfortunate race of human beings.

“The members of the African race, born or naturalized in this country, are citizens of the states where they reside and of the United States. Both justice and the public interest concur in a policy which shall elevate them as individuals and relieve them from oppressive or degrading discrimination, and we shall encourage and cultivate a spirit which shall make them self-respecting, contented and loyal citizens, and give them a fair chance in the struggle of life, weighted, as they are at best, with so many disadvantages. It is evident that to exclude colored people from places of public resort on account of their race is to fix upon them a brand of inferiority, and tends to fix their position as a servile and dependent people. It is, of course, impossible to enforce social equality by law. But the law in question simply insures to colored citizens the right to admission, on equal terms with others, to public places, theatres, and places of public amusement.”

Those are great words, but would they be enough to sway Judge Cabell’s opinion?

Judge Cabell’s Ruling

As the 9:00 hour approached, Judge Cabell issued his decision. Here are a few key pieces of his ruling:

“The fact of the case is shown by a fair preponderance of evidence, that, one Minerva Miller, on the night of Sept. 22, last, went to the place of the Paterson show conducted by the defendant, and applied for admission thereto and tendered the usual price for admission, five cents, and was refused admission, the statement being made by the ticketseller in charge thereof that twenty-five cents is charged to colored persons. The plaintiff claims that there was a discrimination forbidden by law. The argument of the defendant in the course of motions for dismissing the proceedings on non-suit, is directed entirely to the common law right, but we are not dealing with the common law, but with a statute framed to cure an evil grown up under the common law.”

He continued, “A statute has been passed in New Jersey and it is under the statute that this action is brought; the conditions under the common law were the evil the statute was designed to remedy. The common law permitted the owner of a place of public amusement to deny admission to any person or any class of persons for any reason or for any whim. At a time when colored persons were denied the freedom that of right belongs to all men and were generally not on terms of equality before the law with white persons, they were denied equal treatment in places of public resort; when slavery was abolished and when color or previous condition of servitude became no longer a bar to civil equality, it was natural that all discrimination based on these reasons should cease in public places, but it was found that some refused to recognize the new order of equality before the law of all men, and their continual discrimination in public places became a great evil and a gross injustice calling for legislative interference.”

After citing previous case law to support his decision, Judge Cabell wrote, “This defendant was the owner of the show where the unlawful discrimination was made and there is every reason to believe that he knew of the violation and directed it. The law should hold him responsible and the court believes it does. Judgment is entered for the plaintiff for the sum of five hundred dollars.”

Minerva Miller had won her case. $500 would buy her a lot of 5 cent movie tickets: 10,000 tickets to be specific. Yet, there was to be no celebration, at least not yet. Attorney Carroll immediately filed an appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

Letter to the Editor

While awaiting their decision, the following letter appeared on page eight of the November 28, 1911, publication of the Passaic Daily News:

“As a colored business man of this city, and as secretary of the Colored Citizens’ Association, I wish to ask for space in your columns to say a word of praise for the Hon. W. Carrington Cabell, Judge of the District Court of Passaic, in the case of Mrs. Minerva Miller vs. the Paterson Show Company.

“I attended the trial and paid strict attention to the case in every respect. The manner in which Judge Cabell overruled the attorney for the defense in his different pleas and motions for a non-suit, impressed me, as I have never before been impressed in a court room.

“The judge showed a keen conception of the law and his rulings were just and fair.

“The colored people of New Jersey owe to Judge Cabell a great debt of gratitude in that he was enough of a judge to set a precedent in the State of New Jersey upholding the civil rights of the black man. Long may he live and climb up the ladder of judicial fame as his ability and common sense judgment will surely bring him to the topmost round.

“The evidence was conclusive, ’tis true, yet I have known of many cases of similar nature when a weak-kneed judge would render adverse decision for fear of public disfavor. Judge Cabell stands out by this act with such noted defenders of the American negro as Wendell Phillips, Lincoln, Douglas and a host of others.

“In this case as in all others of a like nature, we ask for nothing more than a fair, square deal and equal treatment, and we hope this decision of a damage of $500, the full amount allowed under the law, will be a lesson of warning to many other acts of discrimination being practised here in Passaic County against the negro. The time has come when we will no longer submit to such treatment, but we will fight it in a law abiding manner.

“William L. Greene, Paterson, Nov. 25.”

New Jersey Supreme Court Decision

A decision in the case of Minerva Miller, Plaintiff-Appellee v. Christopher Stampul, Defendant-Appellant was handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court on July 22, 1912. The opinion, penned by Justice Samuel Kalisch, can be summed up with its final sentence, “The judgment of the District Court will be affirmed.”

I’d like to report that the Millers went on to live a long and prosperous life after all of the commotion of this case died down, but that was not to be the case. Her husband Lewis Miller would pass away two and one-half years later on February 11, 1915, at fifty years of age. Then, on May 28, 1921, Minerva Ann Anderson Miller, passed away. She was just fifty-one years old. Both are interred at the Laurel Grove Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.

As for the legal decision itself, it was just a baby step on the road to assuring everyone equal rights under the law. Most people know about key figures in the civil rights movement like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emmett Till, Malcolm X, and John Lewis, but most people would be hard-pressed to name those who made small contributions. Minerva Miller was one of those people, so try to remember her story. She did make a difference.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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