ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Anyone who’s visited the Paramount Theater in Downtown Abilene in the past four decades will likely recognize the two ornate chairs which greet guests in the building’s entryway.
Paramount’s Executive Director George Levesque said it’s the way things have been since the place reopened in 1987 after restoration.
With little to go on, only their design gave any clue as to their origin.
“Well, they’re bishops chairs,” Levesque explained. “So what we can assume is that somewhere around the 1840s, somewhere in the world, those chairs were probably in a catholic church somewhere.”
As for the rest of the chairs’ story, it was a mystery until recently. Reverend Andrew L. Penns, who runs the Curtis House Cultural Center, a museum and resource hub for Abilene’s black history, said it was a photo hanging at the center that gave a glimpse into the chairs’ local history.
“I looked more closely and I said, ‘these are the chairs, they have to be the chairs'” Penns recounted.
Levesque confirmed Penns’ theory with KTAB/KRBC.
“If you zoom in enough on those photos, you’ll see that they’re just identical,” Levesque demonstrated.
Penns said he first took note of the chairs when at a movie at the Paramount in the late 80s. It wasn’t until later that he realized they were the very same that sat behind his old principals desk at Abilene’s then all black school, Woodson High.
“Those were two items that stood out in Dr. Porters office,” Penns recalled.
With the resemblance staring them in the face, the Paramount’s Board of Directors voted to return the chairs to the students of Woodson. Using their upcoming All School Reunion on July 15 as the presentation ceremony.
“When George phoned me and shared with me what the board had decided to do,” Penns said with glee, “I started rejoicing.”
Levesque added that they have been quite protective throughout the decades, declining offers to buy or rent out the chairs. But when it came to a question of ownership, the decision was easy to make.
“We have been the custodians of these chairs for the last 40 years and we are glad to be able to give them back in good shape. But they’re not ours,” Levesque stated. “They’re Woodson’s.”
The closure of Woodson in 1968, unfortunately, left many of the school’s items to be scattered to the wind. That uncertainty only makes the chairs return that much more impactful for the students who remember them and their power and symbolism.
“That was our school,” Penns said. “And it was our heritage, our home. It was like family.”
Though Penns said not all memories involving the chairs may be happy ones, many Woodson graduates, Penns included, can recount the punishments they received while using one of the chairs to steady themselves.
“I don’t remember what I got in trouble for, but I was sent to the principals office… I had to catch the cushion part of the chair, bend over and he [principal] had a paddle about yea long and about that thick,” Penns described. “And he gave me about four or five good licks.”
Even so, those memories are outnumbered by homecoming queen photos and school coronations.
“It’s like bringing family home, a lost member,” Penns said.
We may never know how the chairs moved from the principals office to the paramount lobby, but Penns and the Curtis House Cultural Center is grateful to have some closure.
“At least we know where they’ve been for the last 50 some odd years,” added Penns.
The chairs will be presented to the Woodson students at their upcoming all school reunion on July 15. After which, they will be taken to their pennant home on display at the Curtis house cultural center, located 630 West North Washington Street, along with photos and a brief history.