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.”