Women’s History Month: Pepper Fluke’s Legacy

March 26, 2024 by Sandy Lerebours

In observance of Women’s History Month, we pay tribute to the women who played crucial roles in the restoration of the Carolina Theatre of Durham over the years. Among those frequently acknowledged alongside Connie Moses is her friend, Margaret “Pepper” Fluke. Pepper demonstrated unwavering dedication to the theater and to perpetuating the legacy of Connie and her husband, Monte, dedicating more than 40 years of her life to the theater. 

We had the opportunity to speak with Treat Harvey, former Director of Development at the Carolina Theatre and a dear friend of Pepper, about her enduring impact and legacy. 


Pictured from left to right: Cora Bryant, Pepper Fluke, and Treat Harvey

CTD: What is your background with the theater and how do you know Pepper? 

TH: I moved to Durham from New York City in 1995 and met Pepper the next year when I started working at the Durham Arts Council, which shares a wall with the Carolina Theatre. Pepper was on the Durham Arts Council board and always talked about the theater next door; she was devoted to it, and consequently, I became a fan of the theater through her. Pepper would tell me stories about the 1970s and 1980s at the theater and how a group of volunteers would get together every Saturday to figure out what they could do to clean up this old theater so it could be used by the community.  

As a recent transplant to Durham, I loved her stories of those community efforts. In New York, everything was big and “world-class.”  You didn’t hear about volunteers sweeping the floors or painting the walls of a historic building. It was clear to me that Pepper’s years spent at the Carolina Theatre were really magical – it was a place where Pepper gave her heart and soul. 

 

Don and Pepper Fluke during renovation of the Carolina Theatre

CTD: How did Pepper know Connie and Monte Moses?   

TH: Pepper and her husband, Don, were friends with Connie and Monte in New York in the 1950s. Don got a job at Duke, and not long after, Monte did, too (both as professors). The two couples found each other again in Durham, bonding over their mutual appreciation for the arts. Pepper was devoted to Connie — they had a beautiful friendship. Connie was a performer and Pepper was a visual artist, and they made a great team when they set their minds to rescuing the decrepit theater from being torn down and making it usable again.  

In the early days of the restoration, the friends would host a salon series where they would gather an inner core of people who appreciated the arts. Connie would perform by playing the piano and singing for small gatherings of people in what is now the Connie Moses Ballroom.  

 

Volunteers in the newly renovated and refurbished Connie Moses Ballroom

CTD: What role did Pepper have in the restoration and eventual renovation of the theater? 

TH:  Once they had come up with a plan to re-open the theater as a cinema in 1978, Pepper was integral to every part of the refurbishing. Then, 10 years later, prior to the city-funded renovation, Pepper and the volunteers dismantled every wall sconce and removable decoration in the theater, carefully wrapped each for storage during the renovation period, and then remounted them to the walls to make sure there wasn’t any damage to them. 

Pepper was committed to having the theater preserved in the style of the era it was built in. She was a part of the League of Historic American Theaters, and through her membership, she visited theaters across the US that were built in the same era as the Carolina Theatre. Selecting all the intricate details of the theater was huge. Pepper found a company that would replicate the seats in the same style as the originals, and the colors selected for the major design features of the theater, like the seats and the walls, were all purposeful. Volunteers even strung crystals to replicate the original chandeliers in what is now the Star Lounge; you couldn’t tell which ones were the original ones and which ones were replicas.  

 

The original Black box office was preserved by Pepper Fluke and can be seen today in the Carolina Theatre’s Confronting Change exhibit.

 CTD: Do you know what drove Pepper to preserve so many of the items within the theater? 

TH: Pepper understood that certain things would be historically important, like saving the original “colored” box office, which lived in her garage for five years during the renovation. She was very aware of the racist history of the US and believed it was important to remind people that Black people did not have the same experience as white people during her lifetime; she wanted to make sure that people would not forget that. The original Black box office was installed in the theater’s “Confronting Change” exhibit, outside what was the “Black balcony,” before desegregation. It is an emotional and moving piece for so many visitors. Pepper’s thought of preserving something like this was extremely forward-thinking at a time when most things were being tossed or history forgotten and replaced with “new and shiny” things. 

 

The original theater exterior preserved by Pepper Fluke

CTD: Was there anything in the theater that Pepper was particularly proud of? 

TH: When the cinemas were added to the theater in the ‘90s, a staircase was added between the cinema wing and Fletcher Hall. Within the staircase, there’s a section that contains the outside cornice of the original building, which is now inside and is accessible by the staircase. Pepper envisioned it as a gift for future generations of children to be able to view it up close and to touch a piece of the original building. She definitely wanted children to come and experience the theater for a live performance or an educational event. She made sure that the original mission statement of the nonprofit Carolina Theatre included arts education. 

 

Pepper Fluke at the Carolina Theatre’s 90th Anniversary

CTD: What kind of legacy did Pepper leave at the Carolina Theatre? 

TH: If Pepper had not continued the preservation work that Connie Moses had started before her death in 1985, the theater would not be what it is today. Both of these women’s legacy is that the building is standing and that it remains a beacon for the arts in downtown Durham. Besides that, it is virtually the only building in downtown that is operating as it was intended when it opened nearly 100 years ago. I would call that an extraordinary legacy!  

Pepper also “carried the torch” for naming the cinemas after Monte Moses, who not only restored the theater alongside his wife, the Flukes, and other volunteers, but also programmed films at the theater in those early days. Since the building is owned by the city of Durham, nothing could be done or named inside the theater without their permission.  Pepper wrote to the mayor and city council for years to have the cinemas named for Monte. It finally happened and we organized a ceremony in April 2017, where she got to speak to a wonderful crowd of Carolina Theatre friends. I love Pepper so much that to see her that happy on the day of the plaque unveiling felt like a gift to myself.  

She died just a few months after that ceremony, in October 2017, at age 87.

 

CTD: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

TH: When I arrived in Durham in 1995, a lot of people I met who were active in the arts and have now passed away were still in the prime of their lives — Pepper Fluke was one of them. She wasn’t a “shrinking violet” when she was 70! I felt really lucky to have met her and others involved in the theater in the early days. I like to think of her, Mary Semans, Ella Fountain Pratt, Sue Beischer — all strong women who helped make Durham the place it is today. We get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. My dear Pepper created this magical place and told me so much about it that now when I go to the Carolina Theatre, I have her stories in my head, and that’s a gift. 


Guests can learn more about Pepper Fluke and the multitude of volunteers that brought the Carolina Theatre back to life in our “Restoring Hope” exhibit. The exhibit is open to the public Monday-Friday from 10:30 am-5:30 pm. Learn more