On the evening of Friday, Nov. 22, 1907, a play by George Ade called “The Land of Dollars,” a comedy starring Ezra Kendall, came to the Grand Opera House at Second and Busseron streets (now the site of the Riverfront Pavilion). Two people, Miss Frances Fossett and a friend, Burlie Mabrey, both African Americans, had purchased reserve seat tickets for the show. These were the most expensive tickets sold, costing $1.50 each. What happened to the couple when they attempted to take their seats that night led to a highly publicized court action and illustrates just one of the many challenges faced by black Americans in those years.
When the pair arrived at the Opera House, ushers at first directed them to their seats, but when they got to the reserve section, rather than what was then termed the “colored” section of the segregated Opera House, the ushers would not seat them and escorted them out of the building.
Miss Fossett was a teacher at Public School No. 3 at 12th and Seminary streets (later named the Dunbar School) which was the school for African American children, and another example of local segregation.
Just days later, on Nov. 26, each offended party filed a suit for damages in the amount of $5,000 in Knox County Circuit Court. They were represented by local attorneys James P. L. Weems and Samuel W. Williams. The suits were brought against the owners of the Opera House, John T. McJimsey, his son Guy, and William Crackel. The couple rightfully claimed that they suffered extreme embarrassment and humiliation at having been forced to leave the building in front of some 1,000 patrons (the venue seated 1,200 people).
In sum, the case came down to whether or not the Opera House management could enforce their own rules. The following line was printed on each ticket: “In consideration of the sale of this ticket, the management reserves the right to refund purchase price and refuse admission.”
In mid-December, the plaintiffs suddenly dismissed their respective suits and immediately refiled, changing the defendant to the Grand Opera House Company.
A jury trial began on May 20, 1908, with Miss Fossett’s case heard first. The 12-man jury chosen was comprised of: Pleasant Freeland, Charles D. Cantwell, William Barnes, Henry F. Volle, Roscoe C. Yeoman, Michael Fleck, Walter Grigsby, Ephraim Whitson, John Nestlehut, Columbia T. Parker, Jethro Utt, and Joseph L. Bayard, Jr.
The defendants were represented by James W. Emison and William S. Hoover.
A sizeable crowd was in attendance as the controversial case had generated much interest.
After jury selection concluded, the plaintiff’s witnesses took the stand.
Unfortunately, the jury did not get to deliver a verdict in the case. After the plaintiff’s evidence was heard, Miss Fossett’s attorney asked that the case be dismissed, which was done. The reason given was that “the evidence did not run along the line of the complaint.” She was required to pay the defendant’s costs.
One can speculate that Miss Fossett came to the conclusion that she would not win the case, and thus wanted it dismissed before a decision was reached. After all, she was facing a jury consisting of all white males, so it was unlikely that the verdict would have been in her favor. At any rate, it was an unsatisfactory conclusion to what could have been a landmark case locally.
Mabrey’s suit went on for several more months but never went to trial. He finally asked for a dismissal in late November 1909, with no explanation, and also had to pay the defendant’s court costs.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published this year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.