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Past and Present: Dunbar Theater

Fletcher Powell

Kudos are in order for Wichita’s James Arbertha and the Power Community Development Corporation for their long standing efforts to renovate the historic Dunbar Theater at 10th and Cleveland.

This facility, which opened in 1941, provided local African Americans an alternative to being discriminated against in mainstream Wichita theaters. In the wake of racial desegregation, the Dunbar Theater subsequently closed and fell into a serious state of disrepair.

Yet, for some Wichitans, the Dunbar Theater’s legacy remains strong. For instance, on December 14, 2012, there was a program at the facility where its new marquee was dedicated. Among the speakers at this event was Wichita City Councilwoman and Vice-Mayor Lavonta Williams, whose emotion-filled presentation recounted fond childhood memories of the Dunbar Theater and the Turner Drug Store located next door.

Arbertha’s vision for the renovated Dunbar Theater, scheduled to reopen sometime in 2014, is for it to serve as a performing arts center for area youth. In addition, many hope that the Dunbar’s re-opening will not only help illuminate past African-American entrepreneurship in Wichita, but will serve as a catalyst for much-needed additional economic development in the present-day surrounding neighborhood.

The plan to economically rejuvenate the area around 10th and Cleveland is part of a national sentiment that prompted the economic revitalization of the 18th and Vine District in Kansas City and the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago. These efforts not only help economically uplift African-American enclaves, but also the economic structure of the cities where they are located.

Robert E. Weems Jr. is the Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University.