On September 1, 1961, Duke Ellington announced he was cancelling his upcoming appearance at Robinson Auditorium. Ellington, who had previously appeared at Robinson at least once prior (on November 7, 1951), had been announced for a concert in late August.
In those days, Robinson did not have a formal box office. Tickets were sold at various businesses, usually record stores. When some African Americans called to inquire about tickets and were told they were only available in the segregated seating section of the balcony, they protested to the NAACP. The local chapter then announced that it would encourage Ellington to cancel his concert. The NAACP had a policy that they would boycott performers who ever played at segregated houses. Since Robinson was still segregated, future Ellington appearances would have been met with boycotts.
The local presenters for the Ellington concert tried to negotiate a deal with the Auditorium Commission. They were not successful. One misguided commissioner stated, “Integration may be the law of the land, but it is not the law of Robinson Auditorium.” When they commission refused to back down, Ellington cancelled.
This was only the latest in a string of issues surrounding the desegregation of Robinson. The theatrical and opera producer organizations had both indicated that their touring shows would no longer play at segregated houses. More and more entertainers were declining to play at segregated houses.
The Auditorium Commission was trying to balance their fear of lost revenue from cancelled bookings with their fears of poor attendance by audiences that did not want integration. In a decade of rapid change, the commissioners tended to be older less likely to embrace change.
In 1962, a lawsuit was filed to integrate Robinson, city parks, and other public facilities. It was settled in 1963 when the federal judge ruled against the City. The Duke Ellington incident was often mentioned in media stories around the lawsuit.