The Harvey Bernard Gantt Files
By Tammy Joyner
Photos provided by the Gantt Center
Harvey Gantt is an architect and Democratic politician who was the first African American student admitted to Clemson University.
But if you’re chronicling his legacy, he’s not as interested in recounting for the umpteenth time how he was the first Black person to integrate the South Carolina school.
Instead, you need to understand Gantt’s life is full of firsts.
Clemson is but one. He co-founded the first integrated architectural firm in the Carolinas in 1971. A dozen years later, he became the first African American mayor of Charlotte, the Carolinas’ largest city.
Now at 78, Gantt is comfortably ensconced in retirement with his wife, Lucinda (or Cindy as he calls her), in a house he designed in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward. From there, much of his architectural work is in full view. He plays tennis and golf and reads a lot.
“I’m enjoying the ideal life of a married man who’s been married for 56 years,” he said recently during an hour-long interview.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get tapped for duty every now and then. He is heading a mobility task force at the request of Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles.
“Harvey Gantt is a hero of the Carolinas and a mentor to so many of us who hope to achieve a fraction of his trailblazing contributions supporting the civic life of our communities,” said Michael Marsicano, president of the Foundation For The Carolinas. “We stand on his infinitely broad shoulders of remarkable accomplishments, noble values and unwavering integrity.”
If you want to get Gantt firing on all cylinders, get him talking about the current chaos in America, politically and socially. He said President Donald Trump fomenting the uprising at the Capitol was “the worst possible act that a president can do to his country” and was an impeachable offense, but he doesn’t want to see impeachment cloud the beginnings of the Biden administration.
Despite the national discord, he’s confident America will find its way.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Gantt said when asked if the country will ever reach racial equity. “I’m encouraged by the protests this summer. I’m still watching to see how much of that reflects itself in public policy but more importantly how much it really reflects itself in people really having an honest conversation with themselves and others and their neighbors.”
In the no-holds-barred interview, Gantt talked about a wide range of subjects as well as reminisced about milestones in his life. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q. You’ve been a civil right activist since high school. What motivated you to get involved in civil rights at such a young age?
A. I think my parents, my father (the late Christopher Gantt) particularly, was always an NAACP member way back in the 40s. He could do so because he was a member of the Charleston Naval Shipyard and so his jobs were not threatened as often as many parents were. He was a dyed-in-the-wool NAACP man and he kept his children, his family apprised of what was going on in that arena. We were one of those few families that celebrated May 17, 1954, because of the ruling by the (U.S.) Supreme Court on segregation. So our family was steeped in civil rights activity and I got involved early with sit-ins at lunch counters in Charleston back in April of 1960 and stayed involved since.
Q. So your parents were on board with it?
A. My dad was a big supporter. But my mother was a little bit fearful of my going to Clemson. My mother and father did not know about the sit-ins when we did it. We did it without telling our parents because we thought they would object since most of the people who did it were close to graduation. We did it in April and were graduating in June. People thought an arrest might be a bad thing for us but we thought that objection would occur; therefore we thought it best not to tell (our parents). Twenty-seven of us did this in April 1960. That’s my first activist involvement in civil rights.
Q. When did you finally tell your parents?
A. We told them after we got arrested. They had to bail us out.
Q. They weren’t too hard on you, were they? They probably were secretly very proud.
A. I think at least my dad was secretly proud of what we did but he couldn’t show too much in front of disobedient kids. It was something that was dangerous.
Q. You attended Iowa State after Clemson wouldn’t take your application…
A. No. That’s not true. I had a great guidance counselor in 12th grade who challenged me to consider going to predominantly white schools because most of the architects in the country were white. I had good grades in high school so she thought I ought to test myself against some other schools. And so I then applied to a lot of different schools and decided to choose the Midwest and chose Iowa State. I did not even consider Clemson at that time because Clemson was off-limits. I did not even consider that to be an alternative; neither did my guidance counselor, although the seed had been planted early on by Matthew Perry who was the civil rights attorney in South Carolina.
(Perry took the case of the 27 students, including Gantt, who were arrested after the sit-ins.)
Matthew said to us at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston when he met with all 27 of us, “Who knows, one day one of you may go the University of South Carolina or Clemson.” That’s the closest we came to any reference of my being able to do that. Ultimately we were all exonerated in the Supreme Court.
My first application came in the spring of 1961 ... after I experienced my first winter in Iowa and it was too cold. Notwithstanding the fact there were a lot of things going on in the South at that time. Hamilton Holmes and Charlene Hunter Gault were applying and going to the University of Georgia. Autherine Lucy had already tried to go to the University of Alabama in ’55. But there were other students who were thinking about applying. So I just wondered whether or not Clemson would accept me. They had a great architecture school and the rest is history. I applied five times. Got in on the fifth application after a lawsuit was filed and went all the way to the Court of Appeals. The (U.S.) Court of Appeals mandated that I be admitted in January of 1963.
Q. Let go back to Jan. 28,1963. What was it like for you that day? I understand there were highway patrol escorting you and police helicopters overhead.
A. You probably got that from the documentary “The Education of Harvey Gantt.” It re-enacted the whole scene again. When I went there I was with my father and my minister from Charleston. We entered the campus amidst the crowd of news people who were expecting something to happen. I got out of the car alone. My father couldn’t go with me. I had to do this alone. I went in and it was rather uneventful. I signed some papers and voila! I was registered. I came out to a group of news people and held a press conference so to speak.
And I think you asked the question and many people have asked “Well, how did you feel?” You know, for a kid who’d just turned 20, I wasn’t feeling any great historic moment. It felt like I had done something and it was significant but, you know, the things that were on my mind were “How am I going to navigate this with the news people?” Turns out I didn’t (have to). They had enough security to usher me to my room. There was a kid in the audience who yelled from the back of the crowd “Leave this fella alone” - he used another more pejorative term - “He’ll flunk out soon because architecture is a tough curricula.”
I took that as a personal challenge quietly. And then I went on to the dorm room. And it was uneventful after that. But what became eventful was when it was time to go to the dining hall. I went to the dining hall and amid thousands of students I went through the line and discovered all these Black people who were there and I had forgotten - we all had forgotten - that Clemson was serviced by African Americans. (They) couldn’t be students but they did everything from clean dorm rooms and clean halls. They did the laundry and served the food and all of the stuff that makes life for a student comfortable. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I felt I was surrounded by my people. They gave me the best of everything the service line had. I like to tell the joke about if there was a piece of apple pie out there, they gave me the biggest piece. When they saw me walking through the line the first time they saw their children one day perhaps going there.
Q. I think if that’s all you want to say about your time at Clemson, that sums it up perfectly for me. And you’ve had to talk about this for 50 years?
A. Absolutely, because everybody wants to know about it. Nothing against you but well before you got around to this I bet there were hundreds of reporters who’ve asked that question.
Q. Your wife was the second Black student to attend Clemson. How did the two of you meet?
A. We both remember only that we met the summer before she came to school there. She came in the fall of 1963. We had met at a South Carolina Human Relations meeting where, because I was such a notorious figure in South Carolina, the (South Carolina Human Relations) committee asked me to come and spend the day talking to aspiring college students in South Carolina, people of color who might want to apply. And Cindy was in the audience that day. She didn’t make it known to me then that she was thinking about applying. I formally met her when she became an actual student and I invited her maybe after a week to go to dinner with me at the dining hall. And when I got to know her and started dating her one thing led to another.
Q. Was it love at first sight?
A. That’s a good question. Neither one of us have ever answered that. After 56 years we can easily say “Yeah, it must have been love at first sight.”
Q, What made you want to become an architect, and how has that shaped your work and politics?
A. That is a question I would like to answer. I was inclined to draw from the time I was an early age. I had great teachers along the way who discovered my talent for sketching. Then, I had a ninth grade teacher who showed me an architect working on construction on our high school campus. I did a lot of research to find out what architects did and decided that might be something I could do because they imagine buildings and designing spaces.
I started absorbing everything I could about the profession. Even though at that time I couldn’t even go visit an architect’s office in Charleston, I had to imagine what that might be like. But from ninth grade on, I just said that’s what I want to be. I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do. I thought “Wow! One day I could design a building like this or like Paul Williams, who was a great architect in Los Angeles (Williams was the first certified African American architect west of the Mississippi. He designed homes for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball).
For people like me, he was the only architect we could read about. It was a person of color. But the more I read up on it, the more I studied the history of architects, the more I decided I wanted to be a Frank Lloyd Wright of color or a Paul Williams or one of those kinds of people.
Q. What was your favorite architectural project you’ve done?
A. You’ll never get me to answer that. I have done probably hundreds of buildings. I will never pick out one and say that was the best one. Lots of them were very satisfying. We’ve done lots of schools, elementary schools, junior high schools. We never did a full high school. We did lots of additions to high schools. Done lots of churches all over the Carolinas. We have done office buildings. We’ve done a lot of work in downtown Charlotte. A library. The Center City campus for UNC-Charlotte. Lots of higher education buildings. Science facilities. I could go on and on.
There are some buildings I go back and visit more frequently. Those would tend to be the ones within walking distance from where I live in downtown Charlotte in a house that I designed in Fourth Ward. So I can see the Center City building because it’s an unusual building in the downtown area. It looks like a stack of books, twisted. And we did ImaginOn Children’s library and theater. TransAmerica Square. Then I go to Friendship Baptist Church every Sunday, obviously before the pandemic. I designed that building, which I think is an unusual church.
Q. What makes it unusual?
A. I’m not going to say what makes it unusual. You’ve got to feel it, then you’ll see why I think (it’s unusual) but it feels like a church. Lots of churches today don’t feel like churches. They’re more like auditoriums. I don’t have a favorite. I have lots of buildings I feel good in. One of the things that’s so satisfying about my career - and I practiced it from 1965 until 2015 - is the satisfaction of taking my nine grandchildren and showing them what Granddaddy did over all the years he was practicing.
Architecture is one of the few professions you can do that in. You can point to a student who’s done well. A doctor can talk about people he has caused to live healthier lives after they came in with a certain condition. An architect can show the buildings. The good ones and the bad ones he did and tell stories to his grandchildren. That’s very satisfying.
Q. Why did you run for mayor (in Charlotte)?
A. That was the appropriate thing to do at that time. I had served a number of years, a number of terms on the city council. A seat was open initially in 1979 and I ran for it. Lots of people thought I shouldn’t have because there’d never been an African American nominee from the Democratic party.
Q. A seat was open?
A. For mayor. I was appointed to council in 1974 and I served two and a half terms before I ran for mayor. I ran for mayor in 1979 in the Democratic primary and I lost by I think less than 100 votes. I don’t remember those numbers. I know it was very close.
But what that did was enlightened me and a lot of other people that perhaps an African American could win the mayor’s office. I always thought that I could do it simply because of the experience I’d gained on the council and my background in architecture and master’s degree in city planning from MIT.
It allowed me to see things about this city that perhaps might be useful to the citizens. So that’s why I felt I could run. I came back in ’83 and won and served two terms. I ran a third time and lost to Sue Myrick in ‘87.
Q. Did anyone try to talk you out of running when you first ran for mayor?
A. Nobody really tried to talk me out of it. If anything, people said, “These are the risks you have.” They were correct. You do have the historical aspect that no African American had ever won a nomination from a major party. I never heard once from a Republican or Democrat say “You were not a qualified candidate.”
Q. Have you ever met President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris?
A. I have not met them since they were delivered to such high office. I knew Joe Biden years ago. I met him a few times. Maybe once as senator and once as vice president as recently as maybe 2013. I haven’t talked to him since that time. I did not get involved in the presidential campaign but endorsed him early.
Q. Any thoughts on how you think he’ll do?
A. I think he’s the right person at the right time for this country. Without question, the thermostat needs to be turned down in America. It’s a very, very divisive country. I am shocked that as many people voted for Trump as voted for him but it suggests that we really are a divided country and I think this is actually the correct antidote to maybe getting us back on more of an even keel. I don’t expect any revolutionary policies to be passed in the next four years but I think he can fix things like better health care, including The Affordable Care Act that he and Obama both did in the first and second terms back then.
I think he can help us put the country back to work in a full way with infrastructure improvements. I think we can do some significant things to extend criminal justice reform which is much, much needed. Most importantly he can help us in the racial divide that we have in the country. I think he can speak with confidence to minority communities across this country and bring about some real rethinking of relationships between police and community.
I don’t think he’s a ‘defund the police’ kinda guy and I’m not either. There are ways we can address this issue and not be stuck with the status quo. We’ve certainly got to stop the killing of so many young Black Americans by the hands of the police department. So he can do some things and he can do it in a way that might even bring back folks who have been lost to our party.
We’ve lost a lot of blue-collar white workers. He started in the right direction there with the fact he carried those formerly blue-wall states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. So he’s got some work to do but I think he’s up to the challenge. He and Kamala Harris are probably going to do a great job. Sometimes without doing anything. Sometimes with taking the steps necessary to bring us together.
Q. How did we get here? What led to this racial divide that apparently had been simmering under the surface during President Obama’s two terms in office?
A. We got here because when we all were cheering and shouting and engaging in unspeakable joy and happiness when Obama was elected in 2008, there were a whole group of people who were fearful of the election. Just as we thought we’d never see an African American president, there are people who thought they would never see one either. For them, that represented perhaps a turn in a direction that might mean that their security as citizens in the country was threatened, that white supremacy, which they might have consciously or unconsciously felt, should be there or white privilege or whatever you want to call it, might be on the demise. That there was a coalition of people who were going to make America totally a different place. We didn’t see it but we started to begin to see it in 2010 when there was tremendous backlash. The president lost a lot of seats in Congress but we still maintained through 2012, but that bitterness was gradually growing.
That group of really primarily white citizens who were concerned that they were not going to be the majority with adopting national political policy started to see they needed to have a way to comeback as president. They were shocked to lose a second race to Obama but the third time around - I don’t even think they thought that Trump would come forward but they were more determined.
Q. One of the recent signs that America was becoming racially divided happened on June 17, 2015, when nine church members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were killed during a Bible study by a young white extremist. You were born and raised in Charleston and one of your earliest civil rights exposures was at the church. How did that event affect you?
A. Well, it was shocking as I think it was for all Americans. For someone like me who grew up in Charleston, it was a numbing experience to know that someone could be as cold and vicious and hateful as that to kill all those folks who opened their doors to him.
Mother Emanuel, we didn’t call it that back then. We called it Emanuel AME church. I went there a number of times with my father to civil rights meetings when civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins, James Farmer and other folks would come through town. Technically, they would either go to Morris Street Baptist, which I was a member of, or Emanuel. So civil rights meetings and group meetings there were not unusual because their leadership was always politically involved in a civil rights manner. That was the mantra for those kinds of congregations. So those deaths had some meaning for lots of us who went back generations for why this young man chose that particular church to express his feelings about white supremacy.
Q. Do you think he understood the significance of that church?
A. I’ll never know that answer. A lot of people want to know, was it by accident? Maybe not. He could have chosen lots of other churches but he chose that one.
Q. Did you know any of the victims?
A. No. I know the brother of one of the victims, Malcolm Graham’s sister (Cynthia Graham Hurd), who was a librarian. Her brother was a councilman here in Charlotte and a state senator.
Q. What can mayors do at a local level to address some of the racial animus going on now?
A. I think the mayor of Charlotte is doing some things that I think are very important. When mayors have power, we need to be in sync with what we think is going to occur at the national level. But we also need to be in sync with what our communities need at this moment. And a lot of their needs are not different from when I was mayor.
We started building more affordable housing. We addressed issues of transportation which we’re doing now. We addressed issues of building up neighborhoods. I think we were one of the first mayors to direct a lot of the good resources to neighborhoods that were marginal character.
I like to say we’re trying to bring back certain areas that were destroyed by urban renewal. What we see the mayors doing today and what (Charlotte) Mayor (Vi) Lyles is getting the city to put millions of dollars into affordable housing because we need to.
And she’s beginning to address the question of social mobility in a Charlotte ranked some years ago 50 out of 50 cities in terms of economic and social mobility. We were at the bottom of the ladder. That is, if you were born in a poor community, poor zip code, you’re not likely to escape that very much at this stage in Charlotte.
That’s a tough commentary on an up-and-coming city like Charlotte. It’s the 15th largest city in the country and may be projected to be close to the top 10 in about 50 years. We’ve got to address that and I think she (Lyles) is trying to do it.
The taskforce I’m leading right now deals with mobility and how we can get access for everyone in the community to the jobs, educational opportunities and the other benefits that the community has to offer. To address the cost of moving about the community.
Those are issues she’s concerned about and I’m concerned about and would have been concerned about had I been mayor. The final thing is mayors have to address this national issue of race in such a way that it makes some sense. Police reform in your own community. What are we doing about those problems that exist here in Charlotte that are not far different from what we see in other cities around the country?
What are we doing about making neighbors talk to each other and have those uncomfortable conversations that I’m a big advocate of around race? And finding safe places around the city to talk about how we really feel. You heard me say a while ago that you’ve got to have the Democratic Party talk to white citizens who are near the margins who absolutely have been a huge part of Trump’s base to ask them why they’re supporting policies that actually don’t do much to benefit their own families, their own economic well-being. Why are you supporting a party that spends more time on ideology that’s surrounded by white supremacy? How’s that going to help you move forward? We need those kinds of conversations. That’s what I would be doing as mayor. I think a lot of mayors are going to try to do that.
Q. Do you think we’ll ever see racial parity or equity in this country?
A. We’re headed in the right direction. I’m encouraged by the protests this summer. I’m still watching to see how much of that reflects itself in public policy but more importantly how much it really reflects itself in people really having an honest conversations with themselves and others and their neighbors. Probably in my lifetime, given the amount of time I might have to live, it may or may not be there. But I’m encouraged by what I hear my grandchildren talk about. I’m encouraged that they went to some of these demonstrations this past summer. I’m encouraged by the fact that they were not just there with their Black friends but their Black and white friends. That, to me, means that progress is somewhere there over the horizon.
Q. If you hadn’t become an architect or politician, what would you have pursued?
A. I never thought about that because I’ve always wanted to be an architect. I didn’t want to be a politician. I mean I never aspired to be. I don’t think anybody really does. I can’t think of what else I would have wanted to become. Some people say I should have gone into law. That really didn’t appeal to me. I know too many lawyers.
Q. What would you most want to be remembered for? Or better yet, what would you want to have written on your tombstone?
A. (Laughs) That’s a nice question but that might change from time to time.
I think at the end of the day, if somebody could say something about Harvey Gantt, let’s just simply say, “He really cared.” That’s all I want to say.
Quick Questions with Harvey Gantt
Charlotte’s Fourth Ward neighborhood in a home he designed.
Studied at Iowa State University before earning a bachelor of architecture degree with honors from Clemson University, 1965; master’s degree in city planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 1970.
Co-founded Gantt Huberman Architects in Charlotte, N.C., the first integrated architectural firm in the Carolinas in 1971. (Gantt’s partner, the late Jeffrey Huberman, was a colleague Gantt met while interning in Charlotte in 1965). Visiting lecturer at various institutions, including his alma mater, Clemson University, where he also received an honorary doctorate.
Served on the Charlotte City Council, 1974-83; first African American mayor of Charlotte, N.C., 1983-1987. First African American Democratic nominee to run for U.S. Senate from North Carolina, 1990 and 1996.
Gantt and his wife Lucinda (Brawley) Gantt have four children - Sonja, Erika, Angela and Adam - and nine grandchildren.
“I read a lot.” (Recent books: “How To Be An Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi; “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and a biography about Ruth Bader Ginsberg.) “I play tennis and golf.”