Claudine Lewis Shares Her Civil Rights Protest Story

January 17, 2024 by Sandy Lerebours

Claudine Lewis, speaks about her involvement in helping integrate the theater in the 60s and her efforts to preserve this history as a member of the Carolina Theatre’s Civil Rights Committee in the present day.

Claudine Lewis

CTD: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became a part of the Civil Rights Committee? 

CL: My name is Claudine Lewis. I am a Durham native. I haven’t lived here all my life, but most of my life. Back in the day, we didn’t even have television, so entertainment was the radio or going to the theater. We had some theaters on Pettigrew Street and several that were not integrated, which had different movies. So, we would sometimes go to the Carolina Theatre. The problem with the Carolina Theatre was walking up the 97 steps to the second balcony because I had asthma as a kid and it would take me a while to climb up all of those steps. When the Civil Rights Movement started, I was in high school and definitely in favor of integrating the theater, having had a bad experience.  

Floyd McKissick was greatly involved in organizing us, and it was a youth movement. I want to recognize and emphasize that. We would have meetings at St. Joseph’s AME Church (now the Hayti Heritage Center), and they would instruct us on what we should and should not do. I found this training very key because if anyone could not adhere to the rules, then they could not participate. We went to Woolworth, Kress, and eventually the Carolina Theatre, but when I was at North Carolina College (now NCCU), I was involved in protesting the Carolina Theatre as well as the Howard Johnson Restaurant, a restaurant on the hill where Rooms To Go now resides. Quite a few people were arrested for protesting at the Howard Johnson Restaurant, and I was lucky to avoid being arrested. The jails were full of people from several of these protests. I have never lost my interest in civil rights in all these years. 

CTD: What do you see as the most important goal of the Civil Rights Committee? 

CL: I think our most important goal is to ensure the true history of the Civil Rights Movement is preserved, especially as it relates to the Durham area and the integration of the Carolina Theatre. Another aspect of the goal is to educate the community, most importantly the youth, on what really happened during the Movement and instill, especially in the Black community, the desire to preserve that history for posterity. I think it’s important that those who have been through this history will need to document it as it happened so that someone doesn’t come along and try to create a different version of history. Another goal is to encourage the youth in our communities today as it relates to civil rights and encourage them to get involved to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

CTD: Can you tell us more about the Confronting Change exhibit and the 10th anniversary? 

CL: Let me give you a little background on how I got involved in the Civil Rights Committee at the Carolina Theatre. The organizers were Carl and Vera Whistenton. Carl was one of my high school classmates, so he knew I’d been involved in protests. He called me one day and asked if I’d participate on this committee. At first, I was a little reluctant, I have to admit, but now I am so glad I became a part of this committee. I think we came together around 2012 and worked on this exhibit, which was unveiled in 2014, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the integration of the theater.  

Claudine Lewis (far right) and other members of the Civil Rights Committee check out the newly installed Confronting Change Exhibit.

The exhibit consists of historic photos and descriptions, newspaper articles documenting the changes that took place, and pictures of those involved. There’s a really good picture of the “round robin” protests at the theater, which is when students formed a line, and each person would go to the ticket window to ask for a ticket to the theater. When they were refused, each person would go back to the end of the line to keep asking for tickets, which went around and around. This impacted the business at the Carolina Theatre and got their attention, and these protests are highlighted in the exhibit. We also have videos of interviews with participating leaders and activists and a re-creation of the original “colored” box office established for Black patrons. It was really amazing that we were able to include that when Betty Rhodes, the former education director, came across it in the archives of the theater.  

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the exhibit, we wish to enhance the content, create an online version, and make all the community aware of its existence. We will have several days of programs and panel discussions, musical celebrations, and even a short documentary and reception to mark the importance of this exhibit. I’m really looking forward to that. 

CTD: How has Durham changed in the last 60 years and how has the history of the theater been a part of that? 

CL: One thing that’s changed about Durham is that it has become much more diverse. I think Durham is probably one of the most diverse cities in the state, which makes it an interesting place to live in my opinion. I like the diversity. I think the Carolina Theatre has been trying to address the needs of the diverse inhabitants and they’re doing a good job of this with the various programs, films, and other activities that they offer. 

CTD: What do you hope young people can learn from your experiences and how do you feel they can use their voices to make changes today? 

CL: We need to let the youth here in Durham know that they can bring about major change, as the students did in the 60s. We also need to instill in our youth here in Durham the idea that their voices can be heard and their actions can have a great impact on our community. We want those actions to be positive and bring about positive results. We hope that the youth will understand that they do have a voice and can bring about change.

CTD: How can people learn more about the integration of Durham, help share this history, and continue to create meaningful change? 

CL: First of all, I hope they will visit the exhibit and learn about the integration of the Carolina Theatre. But I am a great friend of Google, and I Google everything. I Google all day. Anything I don’t know, I Google it.  Even by just researching “segregation” or “integration” of Durham, you can find a number of sites that will give you more information about this history. There is also a Confronting Change Teaching Guide that the Carolina Theatre has created for teachers to use before bringing their students to see the exhibit so they can learn something about the exhibit upfront. We’re interested in reaching the youth in our community because they’re the ones who are going to carry on this history. We older people are getting a little tired, but we still keep on doing what we can do. My personal goal is that every young person I meet understands the importance of being involved in the community to bring about positive changes.