Fact Friday 42 - Harvey B. Gantt

Fact Friday 42 - Harvey B. Gantt

Happy Friday Everyone!

During Harvey Gantt’s rise from growing up in public housing in Charleston, S.C., to an architectural career featuring award-winning commissions, he brought down racial barriers in public education and raised the hopes of African Americans in politics during two terms as mayor of North Carolina’s largest city.

Gantt later gained national attention at the end of the century after he was selected to chair the National Capital Planning Commission and guide the creation of a monument to the veterans of World War II on the Mall in Washington D.C. 

Side note: The sculptor of the statues at the WWII memorial, Ramond Kaskey, also sculpted the Queen Charlotte statue at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and the statues that stand at the corners of Trade and Tryon Streets in uptown.

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.

The son of a shipyard worker in Charleston, Gantt was born there January 14, 1943. He spent his formative years in Charleston and was the quarterback on his high school football team before heading to college at Iowa State University in 1960. Deciding he wanted to study closer to home, he applied to Clemson University, a state-supported school where Jim Crow laws prohibited the enrollment of African Americans. Gantt said he did not choose Clemson to challenge the law, but because of his personal career interests. “There was no wish on my part to become a pioneer,” Gantt recalled. “I just wanted to be a good architect… in the environment in which I was going to practice.”

The school denied his application and Gantt filed a federal lawsuit in 1962 to gain admission. A lower court ruled against him, an appeals court ruled in his favor, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.

When he arrived on the Clemson campus in January 1963, his entrance was marked by the presence of hundreds of highway patrolmen and law enforcement officers as authorities sought to prevent violence. Gantt recalled looking out on a crowd of more than four hundred as he gave his first and only press conference during his studies at Clemson. “There was some kid out at the end of the crowd that said, “Leave this guy alone. He’ll flunk out soon and this will all be over with,” Gantt said. “I remember I started laughing about that.”

After classes began, Gantt sought to live life as quietly as possible. He usually studied and ate alone in an effort to relieve any tension among fellow students, but he did make a few white friends. His peaceful demeanor prompted notice from vocal critics of integration such as Jesse Helms, who was then a commentator for WRAL-TV in Raleigh. On one occasion, Helms editorialized: “If ever a man put his best foot forward, Harvey Gantt has done so. His conduct will not cause South Carolinians to relish court orders relating to integration, but he has don a great deal – probably more than he himself realizes – establish respectful communications across sensitive barriers in human relation.”

Gantt took the daily challenges in stride. “I learned to smile, really smile, at Clemson,” he said. “I learned then that a couple of those incidents could throw me for a day, make me mess up a couple of exams. I couldn’t afford this.” Gantt’s strategy paid off and the Clemson students accepted his presence. “I saw people going from being vocal about wanting to preserve segregation to a passive acceptance of social change,” one of Gantt’s fellow students, Hal Littleton of Asheville, recalled years later in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “They saw Harvey didn’t have two heads and the school wasn’t going down the tubes.”

Gantt graduated with a degree in architecture in 1965 and turned down three offers in Atlanta to join the Charlotte firm of Odell and Associates, where he was impressed with the influence of the firm’s principal owner, A. G. Odell, who was an architect of national reputation and former president of the American Institute of Architecture (AIA). “I was struck by his ability to influence major city leaders on certain things he wanted to do,” Gantt said. “I was motivated to say that architects could do more than just basically design a nice looking building.”

After watching Odell and gaining experience, Gantt decided he needed more education to make a difference on the shape of the city. He entered Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, where he received a degree in city planning in 1970, and then returned to Charlotte to open a practice in 1971 with Jeffrey Huberman. “I came out of MIT clearly understanding a lot more why cities look the way they look,” Gantt said.

He also became involved in political affairs in Charlotte and worked on various issues with Charlotte City Councilman Fred Alexander, another African American. After Alexander was elected to the state senate and left the council in 1974, Gantt was appointed to fill the one year remaining in Alexander’s term. In 1975, he ran for election to a full term and was elected as an at-large candidate. In 1979, he filed as a candidate for mayor, and narrowly lost to Eddie Knox, a former state legislator. In 1983, Gantt was elected Charlotte’s first African American mayor by an electorate that was overwhelmingly white. He was subsequently reelected to another two-year term in 1985 of the state’s largest city of about 350,000.

During Gantt’s time in office the city experienced exponential growth. It secured its first national sports franchise, the National Basketball Association’s Charlotte Hornets; construction of a $47-million coliseum, which opened in 1988; completed a $68-million widening of Independence Boulevard; and started a $300-million headquarters for the state’s largest bank, North Carolina National Bank (later the Bank of America).

As mayor, Gantt focused on revitalizing the center city and working to have the city adopt district representation on the city council. Also under his administration, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport completed a new ten-thousand-foot runway and the first official home of the Afro-American Cultural Center, an 11,000-square-foot facility at Myers and 7th Streets was opened. The center would eventually be renamed after Gantt, The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, and moved to its current home at South Tryon and East Stonewall Streets.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture

Gantt also helped organize mayors from other large cities in the state who were seeking alternatives to property tax as a way to pay for city services. “We talked about a payroll tax, land transfer taxes, things that dealt with the tenor of the economy, the growth aspects of the economy, rather than depending so heavily upon property taxes,” Gantt said.

In 1990, Jesse Helms, the television commentator who had complimented Gantt on his campus demeanor, was finishing his third term in the U.S. Senate. First elected in 1972, Helms had become the national standard-bearer for the Republican Right during his eighteen years in the Senate. After defeating two previous Democratic efforts to unseat him, Helms was considered virtually unbeatable. As expected, Gantt’s entry into the race created a flurry of attention. Gantt said his decision to run was simple. “I just couldn’t let Helms win uncontested,” he said.

Gantt said he did not consider himself a trailblazer in North Carolina statewide elections. “Howard Lee [of Chapel Hill] ran for lieutenant governor back in the Seventies,” he said. “He lost a runoff race, but his candidacy opened up possibilities for African Americans who might want to extend beyond whatever local office they had run in. Most African Americans run from wards or districts where their population is likely to elect them. Fewer of us at that time in the Seventies and Eighties could run at-large campaigns and win a broader cross-section of people.” Gantt said he thought he was able to attract white voters statewide because he had proved himself as mayor of the state’s largest city.

Gantt led the field against white candidates in the first Democratic primary and subsequently beat Mike Easley, who later was elected governor, in a second primary. His nomination captured the attention of Democratic Party regulars and party special interest groups around the nation. Pledges of support poured into his campaign headquarters in Charlotte. 

Throughout the race, Helms had portrayed Gantt as a typical “tax-and-spend liberal.” Gantt responded by saying, “If a liberal means caring about education, caring about housing, caring about the environment, if it means caring about people, then I’m a liberal.” Helms also criticized Gantt for his role as a member of a group that that received a license to own a new television station, only to sell it at a profit two and a half years later to a white-controlled corporation, Capital Broadcasting Company of Raleigh, Helm’s former employer.

Gantt, who characterized Helms as a slumlord who was hopelessly out of touch with modern America, mobilized a grassroots effort and campaigned vigorously. In the weeks prior to the election, some polls gave him the edge over Helms. The numbers turned less than two weeks before the election following the broadcast of a Helms campaign ad that many considered an obvious play on racial bias. The ad showed a white man crumpling a letter with a voiceover that intoned, “You need that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” The spot made it clear that Helms was on the side of the whites who may have felt that they had lost out to an African American because of affirmative action and other such programs.

Gantt accused Helms of race-baiting. “They [the Helms ads] are divisive,” he said. “They are designed to scare people along the lines of race.”

Gantt lost the 1990 election decisively: 47 percent to Helms’ 53 percent. 

Gantt ran against Helms again in 1996 and accused Helms of race-baiting in the campaign, but Helms retorted, “He claims everything he doesn’t like is racist. He’s going to have to grow up about that.” Despite many offers, Helms refused to debate Gantt, saying, “I’m sure he has other folks who will help him raise a crowd. The only ones who call for a debate are the ones who are behind.”

Gantt’s second campaign coincided with the 1996 presidential campaign and the received national attention during an address to the Democratic National Convention at Chicago. In his four-minute speech he told his American success story from his rise from public housing to a successful career in architecture. 

Gantt outspent Helms $7.9 million to $7.19 million, but again lost to Helms, 46 percent to 54 percent. Helms was gracious in his comments. “I wish him well,” he said. “I assume he’s a nice guy. I’m not going to kick him around.”

“I still believe that in America anything is possible,” Gantt told the Charlotte Observer. He said he would continue to try to find a way to serve the public, but despite may pleas he decided to forego more attempts to gain public office. 

Some years after his political career ended, Gantt remained about the experience. “I think it [his candidacies] opened up all kinds of possibilities,” Gantt said. “The clout of blacks in the Democratic Party was demonstrated in the primary wins that I had in 1990 and 1996, against strong candidates. People saw a wider opportunity for diversity in politics because while such candidates were narrowly unsuccessful they clearly demonstrated that in a relatively short period of time, black candidates may be elected governor or senator one day.” 

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Gantt Huberman Architects was a large Charlotte firm with forty-two architects and interior designers. It was chosen to design the Charlotte Transportation Center and the TransAmerica Center in Charlotte, and held contracts as far away as New York. The firm had won numerous awards for its buildings, including an AIA award for student housing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a similar award from the Charlotte Chapter of the AIA for the Charlotte Transportation Center.

TransAmerica Square in uptown Charlotte (Fourth Ward).


Charlotte Transportation Center in uptown (First Ward). 

“People always ask me if Harvey is still practicing architecture because of his high profile,” Huberman said. “Harvey’s first love has always been architecture. He practiced architecture even during his days as mayor and his two runs for the United States senate. People will tell you that even during meetings he was always drawing and sketching.”

Huberman said Gantt’s lasting legacy from his political service is his ability to act as consensus-builder. “He has always worked very hard to lead others with different ideas into a unified point of view of perspective,” Huberman said. “He brought with his background in architecture and planning with him. When he was mayor of Charlotte his foresight and knowledge gave him a view of what the city could be.”

Gantt was recognized in 1987 as a fellow of the AIA. He served on the North Carolina Board of Architecture, on the AIA National Minority Services Committee, as a juror on numerous design awards programs, and as a member of the accreditation committees at the schools of architecture at Howard University and Southern University. He was lecturer and visiting critic at colleges and universities all across the nation, including Hampton, Yale, Cornell, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michigan, Tuskegee, North Carolina A & T State University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Together he and his wife Lucinda (Brawley) Gantt, who was the second black student at Clemson, had four children: Sonja, Erika, Angela and Adam. Their daughter, Sonja Gantt, was a 20-year news anchor at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, but recently took another role as the executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Public Schools Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that collects donations to supplement educational programs.

Needless to say, I was proud to have earned a Harvey B. Gantt scholarship while in college. He was and continues to be a role model for me and for many.

Until next week!


Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback! 

Information taken from:

The North Carolina Century, Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000, 2002, Howard E. Covington, Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, Coeditors.



Some content reworded or updated. Additional commentary added.

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass

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