By Sandra Parker
Photography provided by the City of Charlotte Public Service and Information
and the Clemson Libraries’ Special Collection and Archives

Harvey Gantt’s life has been a journey of trying to bring about a brighter future

As Harvey Gantt was growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, he heard his father talk about “a better day.”

He began attending local NAACP meetings with his father and learned about the efforts for civil rights and ending disparities that existed in the segregation-era South. Glimmers of that “better day” were becoming more apparent when the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court (in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka) ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

With his parents as role models, Harvey Gantt became an active participant in bringing that better day into existence.

A Part of History

Every story has a beginning, as every superhero has an origin story. Harvey Gantt’s story began in 1943. He is the oldest of Christopher and Wilhelmina Gantt’s five children, and his parents believed strongly in hard work, honesty, integrity, education and treating others as they wanted to be treated.

“We saw by example the kind of life they wanted us to lead and their vision for us to get an education and to do well,” Gantt explains. “What was remarkable about it — I don’t think my sisters and I appreciated that example until we got to junior high or high school — was that we realized that neither one of our parents had a high school diploma.”

Gantt was active in church and sang in the church choir, and in junior and senior high school choirs. He played baseball and made his way up the ranks in Boy Scouts.

During Gantt’s senior year of high school, the Greensboro Four sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Gantt and others who had formed a local NAACP Youth Council were inspired to take a stand. They formulated a plan of action to take place a month before graduation in 1960. Twenty-seven students — including Gantt — sat down at a lunch counter at an S.H. Kress & Co. five-and-dime store in Charleston.

As followers of the nonviolent movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., the students had pledged not to respond or retaliate if they were met with violence. But they were prepared for the worst.

“The participants had to be prepared to withstand the insults or ketchup being poured over our heads,” Gantt explains, “but as 17-year-olds, we were excited to participate. We were prepared to ask for a hot dog and a drink and wait to be served, knowing that the attendants would say no, and we would just sit.”

After they were refused service, the students were taken in by police and locked in a courtroom until their parents could pick them up.

“The rest is history,” Gantt reflects. “The Supreme Court ultimately decided that we were not trespassing, and that was one of many sit-ins across the South that helped bring segregation at lunch counters to an end. It was really the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, but the sit-ins led up to that, and I’m so proud to have been a part of that.”

[Gantt’s] parents believed strongly in hard work, honesty, integrity, education and treating others as they wanted to be treated.

Child of the South

After graduating second in his class from Burke High School, Gantt attended Iowa State University to study architecture. After a year of study, he returned home and sued for admission to the racially segregated Clemson University. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Clemson to admit him, and in January 1963, Gantt became the first African American student to attend Clemson.

“I knew that, eventually, I would get in,” says Gantt. “The law was on our side; morality was on our side.”

The initial application response was positive; Gantt was simply a student trying to return to his home state. But it wasn’t until he sent his transcript from Burke High School that they realized he was African American. After five unanswered applications, Gantt resorted to a lawsuit. Some of his Iowa State classmates wondered why he would go to the trouble.

His answer was simple: “Aside from the cold weather, I was just too far away from home. I was just a child of the South. I wanted to go home.”

“My experience at Clemson was not as daunting as some would want to make it seem,” Gantt continues. “Aside from a few students who tried to make me uncomfortable, most people just ignored me. I had great friends in the School of Architecture, probably because I spent 80 percent of my time there. I got good grades; the professors treated me fairly. I studied hard; that’s what I did at Iowa. I didn’t see any reason to change the pattern at Clemson.”

If you talk to Gantt about his college days, there are some aspects that stand out as life-altering, in the best way possible.

“One of the things that made Clemson special was number 1, I got to know the woman I have been married to for more than half a century — Lucinda.”

Harvey and Lucinda Gantt met during the summer when he was speaking to a group of high school students in Columbia who were interested in attending Clemson and the University of South Carolina.

The next semester, Lucinda Brawley enrolled at Clemson, becoming the second African American student and the first African American woman. Gantt formally met Lucinda at her dormitory and escorted her to the dining hall. The two became friends and after a couple of months went on their first date to see a movie. The friendship became a romance, and they were wed in October 1964 in Hopkins, South Carolina. The couple then lived in a small off-campus house rented to them by friends. “There were classes during the day, and we saw each other in the evening,” Gantt says. He describes his wife as a whiz at math while he favored the creative and artistic path.

Gantt’s Clemson days also were boosted by the warmth of the neighboring community. “While at Clemson, I met the Clemson African American community, the people who were taking care of students for generations,” Gantt says. “They really surrounded me with the kind of friendship and support that made going to school very bearable. I still remember some of the good times I had at Golden View Baptist Church. I met some great people in Clemson, the Reid and Gantt families, and in Seneca, the Hill, Pinckney and Battle families. Those families really befriended me, and the African American community made it feel like home.”

Gantt received his B.A. in architecture from Clemson with honors in 1965. Lucinda completed her college career in applied mathematics with a B.A. at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and later continued her education by earning a B.S. in accounting. She has worked for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System; Peat, Marwick, Mitchell; and FDY. She retired her professional career after serving years as business manager of East Towne Manor, an assisted-living facility.

Photo by Etoyle Dorn

In 1971, Gantt and Jeffrey Huberman founded Charlotte’s first racially integrated architecture firm — Gantt Huberman Architects.

A Better Way

After college, no architectural firms in South Carolina would even interview Gantt, but he had several interviews with Atlanta and Charlotte companies. Charlotte seemed like a good place to settle his growing family. So, the Gantts spent three years in Charlotte while he honed his craft and obtained his license as a professional architect. He then accepted a fellowship to study city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1970 after graduating from MIT, Gantt moved back south and began teaching part time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill while also working with civil rights leader Floyd McKissick on an aspirational program called Soul City, a planned community designed in rural North Carolina (primarily by Black architects and planners). The community focused on attracting residents, businesses and people of all races and economic levels.

The project was supported by President Richard Nixon at the time but didn’t get the support of North Carolina senators, and McKissick struggled to get funding. On the upside, Gantt says, “It helped me to see what it might take to design the ideal environment.”

Great minds often think alike. In 1971, Gantt and Jeffrey Huberman founded Charlotte’s first racially integrated architecture firm — Gantt Huberman Architects. Gantt and Huberman had previously worked together when Gantt spent his first three years in Charlotte. They had toyed with the idea of creating a diverse firm in North Carolina that could employ the best of both worlds.

Gantt recalls their planning: “We thought, ‘What if we had a Black and white firm and then went after work based on our talents? Wouldn’t that be a better way to approach architecture?’”

The firm was a success, and the skyline of Charlotte bears witness to that. Gantt got the chance to influence both the public and private sectors, including redesigning his high school (Burke High School) and designing the church he attends in Charlotte, a Charlotte transportation center that upgraded the city’s quality of public transportation, and educational facilities, such as libraries and college and university projects around the Carolinas. In 2006, Gantt Huberman Architects received the AIA North Carolina Firm Award, the highest honor the organization can bestow upon a firm.

Gantt has been recognized for his individual accomplishments as well. He was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He received the AIANC Award of Excellence in Architecture in 1981, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Leadership Charlotte in 2006 and the AIA’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for social activism and responsibility in 2013. In 2017, Gantt received AIA North Carolina’s F. Carter Williams Gold Medal.

Like a Duck Takes to Water

If a person’s goal in life is improving the community, it is only natural, for many, that politics is next. Gantt says he ended up on the Charlotte City Council by accident in 1974, accepting an appointment by the council to fill a vacancy for a one-year term.

“I took to it like a duck takes to water,” he says. “I enjoyed making decisions that I thought benefited a lot of people. I thought it was a great complement to my architectural career because architects have to assemble materials and put together good structures. City Council members and people who serve in public office have to take into account all the needs of the community and try to come up with solutions.”

After three terms on the Charlotte City Council, in 1979, Gantt unsuccessfully ran for mayor. In 1983, however, he was elected as Charlotte’s first African American mayor, where he served for two terms.

Though he lost his third-term race, Gantt says, “The experience of working to see people get improvements in their lives — to solidify opportunities for people by putting good things in poor neighborhoods to help enhance the neighborhood, by providing services that made the poor more mobile around the city — all of those things were quite rewarding, and they complemented the architectural career that I was leading.”

As mayor, he helped set up the first public arts commission in Charlotte and establish a program to allocate public arts for new projects, such as parks and buildings. He also served on the board of the city’s Afro-American Cultural Center, making its facility improvements a priority.

“This was a place that told the story of the cultural history of African Americans in Charlotte and promoted the arts among African American artists,” he says. After Gantt left public office, a brand-new facility was erected, named the Harvey B. Gantt Center for Arts and Culture in his honor.

In 1990, Gantt lost in a contentious race for the U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. The race proved to be a tight one that garnered broad attention outside of North Carolina, which included the endorsement of Barack Obama, then a 29-year-old Harvard law student.

“I got in the race as an underdog,” Gantt says. “Most people thought it was impossible for me to win against someone as popular as incumbent Jesse Helms because I was a Clemson alumnus, an African American and a person who was not originally from North Carolina. We took on the challenge.”

Although he lost, the Senate race heightened Gantt’s visibility nationwide, and he was subsequently asked to chair the National Capitol Planning Commission under President Bill Clinton’s administration. The commission provides planning guidance for federal land and buildings in the District of Columbia and surrounding regions where government facilities are located.

“It was quite an honor to be a part of that,” says Gantt, “and do some of the planning necessary for a number of facilities, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the World War II Memorial and the Washington Convention Center.”

Celebrating Progress

If you’ve been on Clemson’s campus lately, you might have walked on the street that bears Harvey Gantt’s name or attended events sponsored by the Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, a part of the Division of Inclusion and Equity, where the Gantts have spent hours meeting with and inspiring Clemson students. Gantt also has encouraged the Harvey B. Gantt Scholars, recipients of the scholarship created by the Clemson Black Alumni Council in 1988 to recruit and retain African American students.

In 2012, Gantt was the University’s Victor Hurst Convocation keynote speaker for the start of the academic year, marking the 50th anniversary of his entry as the first African American student.

Over the years, Gantt has served and volunteered for his alma mater. He has been a visiting lecturer and has held various posts with the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. He has served on the President’s Advisory Board. The University bestowed on him an honorary doctorate in humanities.

“There is not much I have done over the past almost 57 years without my wife by my side, or without me by her side in the things in which she is involved. We are two peas in a pod.”

The Next Generation

Harvey Gantt has spent a lifetime encouraging, engaging and mentoring professionals and students from kindergarten to college. After more than 50 years, he is moving away from the limelight.

“I decided when I retired from the practice of architecture that I needed to get off the stage,” he says. “There are people I spoke to as kids who are now adults, moving into leadership roles. I love standing in the wings and applauding and pushing forward those folks who are our leaders of the day.”

Gantt has lived an optimistic life.

“Optimism isn’t something you can buy or cash in at the lottery counter,” Gantt explains. “I have been blessed to have had a good life. I have been blessed with a soulmate who has been with me for almost 57 years. I have four great children and nine wonderful grandchildren. What you see from me is an inner glow because I’ve tried to do right. This optimism is not exclusively mine. People find this by a belief in something bigger than themselves. In my case, that would be God and Jesus Christ.”

People find optimism by passing on values, says Gantt, and seeing his children and grandchildren prosper is a very special experience. “When I see my grandchild graduating with a master’s degree, I remember when I used to hold them almost in the palm of my hands as babies. I know in these instances something good did catch, and they must pass this on to their children.”

He is optimistic about the country’s future. “I think this is a seminal point in history, much as it was in 1964 and 1965.”

Do Right

After his retirement in 2015, Gantt and his wife went on a month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand. He described it as a great time to reflect before returning to his new life. Now, Gantt has more time to sing in the church choir. He plays golf and tennis. He reads a lot. He enjoys good conversations, those without computer screens involved. He is happy to relax, at least a little, and spend time with family.

“There is not much I have done over the past almost 57 years without my wife by my side, or without me by her side in the things in which she is involved. We are two peas in a pod.”

With his occasional input from the sidelines, Harvey Gantt is continuing to leave a legacy of which his parents would be proud and that his children can carry on, demonstrating that it’s possible to make a difference by helping others along the way.

Or in his own words, “We can make a difference by trying to do right.”

Sandra Parker is a freelance writer living in Seneca, S.C.,
and a former writer/editor in University Relations at Clemson.

3 replies
  1. Joan Zimmerman says:

    Harvey Gantt is a remarkable man – his impact throughout the places he has called home – is enormous.
    Why is this? Because he is a true servant leader; his concern has always been other-centered. He says he is fortunate.
    He might be — but we are more fortunate by having him share his time, talent and hope.
    Keep up the good work, Harvey – we need you now as much as ever.
    JoanZ

    Reply

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