Before Harvey Gantt became Charlotte’s first African-American mayor or designed buildings to fill the city’s center, he was a perpetually-cold Iowa State undergraduate.
Then he noticed a bulletin board flier about Clemson University.
Clemson’s highly-ranked architectural program piqued the interest of the Charleston, SC, native. But the prospect of integrating the university ignited his imagination. Gantt knew of other African-American students applying to formerly all-white institutions and he had been active in civil rights issues in high school. So he decided to attend Clemson.
His approach was simple and straightforward. “I took the approach that maybe Clemson will admit me if I just apply,” he said.
Five times over five consecutive semesters his application was denied or “delayed” because of missing health records or requests for a personal interview or additional architectural portfolios. Finally, in 1962, Gantt sued and won. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the university’s final appeal and, on Jan. 28, 1963, Gantt enrolled, becoming Clemson’s first African-American student.
On campus, Gantt quickly made many friends in the School of Architecture, found that the professors graded him fairly and met his future wife, Lucinda, Clemson’s second student of color.
After graduating in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree with honors in architecture, Gantt joined an architectural firm in Charlotte. He subsequently earned a master’s degree from in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned to Charlotte, opening his own architectural firm, Gantt Huberman Architects, with Jeff Huberman in 1971.
Gantt moved into the political arena due to his friendship with Fred Alexander, a long-time Charlotte City Councilmember. When Alexander won a seat in the North Carolina Senate in 1974, he recommended Gantt be appointed to fill the remainder of his term.
On the city council, Gantt’s degree in City Planning made him particularly valuable, and he found he enjoyed the work. “I took to politics like a duck takes to water, he said.
When the appointed term ended, he was elected to his own seat on the council. In 1979, after five years on the council, he ran for Mayor. But while Gantt was ready, Charlotte voters were not. He lost in the primary by less than 1,000 votes and returned to the council, as Mayor Pro Tem. He ran again four years later and won, becoming Charlotte’s first African-American mayor. Gantt served two terms before being defeated for re-election in 1987.
Staying engaged in politics, Gantt twice ran for the US Senate in the 1990s, ultimately losing two bitterly-contested races.
Gantt’s impact on Charlotte stretches far beyond local government, as many of his architectural designs have come to define Charlotte’s landscape, including the Charlotte Transportation Center, the Transamerica Square Development on North Tryon Street, and ImaginOn, a children’s theater and library. His design portfolio encompasses more than 100 buildings, including a redesign of Burke High School, his alma mater in Charleston, and Friendship Baptist Church, where he currently attends.
When Charlotte began considering a new Afro-American Cultural Center, residents lobbied for it to be named in Gantt’s honor, reflecting his decades of service in the community and on the center’s Board. Today, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, in the historic Brooklyn neighborhood, stands as a tribute to Gantt and Charlotte’s African-American community.
Gantt understands how his trailblazing career has opened opportunities for future generations and does not take lightly his role in integrating both Clemson and the Charlotte mayor’s office. “When I look at Clemson and see students achieving academically, and knowing that I was the first one there, I feel a great deal of gratitude and pride,” he said.
Gantt remains passionate about making a difference for his community. He currently serves on boards that address afterschool enrichment and affordable housing. He also acts as a consultant to those who are trying to better their communities.
–by Quain Dixon