Former Charlotte Mayor On Making History, American Politics Harvey Gantt made history in 1983 as the first African-American to be elected as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. In this week's Wisdom Watch, Gantt, who is also a renowned architect, discusses his political and professional journey and shares thoughts on Sen. Barack Obama's quest to change history.

Former Charlotte Mayor On Making History, American Politics

Former Charlotte Mayor On Making History, American Politics

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Harvey Gantt made history in 1983 as the first African-American to be elected as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. In this week's Wisdom Watch, Gantt, who is also a renowned architect, discusses his political and professional journey and shares thoughts on Sen. Barack Obama's quest to change history.

CHERYL CORLEY, Host:

And now it's time for Wisdom Watch, where we speak with distinguished elders from a variety of fields in hopes that they'll pass on not just knowledge but the wisdom gained from years of accomplishment.

Today our guest is Harvey Gantt. He was the first and so far only African-American mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. He might best known nationally for challenging the late Senator Jesse Helms for his seat in the U.S. senate back in 1990. That's when Helms fought back using what's considered the last overtly race-bating political ad. Gantt is also an award-winning architect and blazed to trail in that field, as well. He was the first African-American admitted to Clemson University where he earned his Bachelor's degree in architecture. He's currently a fellow in the American Institute of Architects and continues to practice at the firm he co-founded, Gantt Huberman Architects, in Charlotte. Michel Martin spoke with him recently.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

You've racked up a host of honors over the years, but one of the most recent is a building that is going to be named in your honor. And I understand that you were reluctant to have the building named after you, the Harvey B. Gannt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. Why?

HARVEY GANTT: Well, I had a lot of mixed emotions about that. Perhaps it's a personal thing. You know, I have always felt that we ought to name buildings for people who have sort of completed their service on earth, shall we say. But I thought better of it and really sort of now I embrace the honor that people have bestowed on me by naming this building after me. And if it inspires young people, particularly persons of color, to go forward and achieve in building their communities, you know, I'm going to be happy with it.

MARTIN: Why architecture for you? What made you want to go into that field?

GANTT: You know, when I was a kid, a long time ago, I was always a person with nervous hands and a fifth-grade teacher discovered that. And in fact, I pursued that. So I've always wanted to be an architect, nothing more. I can't even remember wanting to do anything else other than design things for people.

MARTIN: I can't imagine, though, that there were that many role models for you at that time. At least nobody who looked like you.

GANTT: Absolutely not. I mean, back in the days when I was aspiring to be an architect, and in fact, my parents said, you might want to consider being a teacher or a preacher or perhaps a doctor and maybe even a lawyer. And I said, no, but I want to be an architect. But there were no architect's offices that I could visit in Charleston, South Carolina, which is where I grew up. And so I continued to pursue it with the help of a great guidance counselor in high school who sort of made available to me all the books on architecture and architectural personalities across the country. And then I pursued it in Iowa State. And the more I pursued it, the more I loved it.

MARTIN: Is it my understanding and do I have that right that actually, when you integrated Clemson, it was by court order?

GANTT: Yes, it was.

MARTIN: What was that like?

GANTT: Well, first I went to school in Iowa but I wanted to practice in the South and I decided that, you know, I want to go back home and I want to see the South grow into this very, very special place that would provide opportunities for all of its citizens. And I mean, all of its citizens. And so I thought it made sense for me to apply to go to school there since I wanted to practice architecture in the South. And when I applied, I was rejected by Clemson two or three times. And finally, we filed a lawsuit, summer of 1962, and winter of 1963 I was admitted. And that was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life.

MARTIN: Well, why?

GANTT: Well, Clemson proved to be a very positive experience for me. I made lifelong friends there. I'm still affiliated with the University. We - our architectural firm does work for them. They have welcomed me with open arms even after the reluctance of allowing me to come, initially. And I think Clemson's very proud of that history, and I'm very proud of the institution for what it has done since that time.

MARTIN: Some of the experiences we associate with college life, so many of them were so fraught, like, you know, who you sit with in the cafeteria.

GANTT: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, things like that. Was it like that for you?

GANTT: Yeah. You know what? A lot of people - when I went to school in January of 1963, James Meredith had just gone through that awful experience in Mississippi at Ole Miss. in September of '62. And I think South Carolina was very influenced by what happened there. They didn't want to see all the disorder that occurred as a result of a student wanting to go to school just to get a college education. And so I think the leadership from the very top on down, from the governor to the president of the college, said simply were not going to have that kind of behavior.

And then I always felt that if I had the opportunity to get to school and people understood that I was interested only in getting an education and practicing architecture in the South, that they could buy into that. And they did buy into that. And you know, almost from the very first day, I developed a camaraderie and relationship with the students in the architecture school, who were always considered to be a little bit different from, say, the ag students and the others who might have come to study more traditional land grant courses. And they were a lot more accepting of me, so it made college life a little bit more normal than one might expect. So we ate and slept and studied together because of the nature of the architecture curriculum. And I thought it was as normal an existence as possible.

MARTIN: Did anybody ever say to you that you just don't belong here, we don't want you here?

GANTT: No. No one ever came up to me and confronted me straight on. I never heard the N-word, never got any of that said. No one ever spat on me. No one ever - I think there was a student once, I think. I knew there was a student once who probably had a bet with some other students that he would go over and befriend Harvey Gantt, about the second day that I was there. And he did so. He came over and I was sitting at a table alone in the dining room. And he came over and he sat down, and I said, hello, and then he said, hello. And we exchanged a few formalities and he got up and left and went back to his table as if to say, see, I told you I would do it. But beyond that kind of an awkward moment for both of us, most of the rest of the time I went to lunch with architecture students and others.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're having our Wisdom Watch conversation with pioneering architect and the former mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt. What made you decide to go into politics?

GANTT: I guess I love people, and it was probably my way of contributing back to the community. You know, it always feels as if you - when you live in a place, you ought to be involved with what's happening around you. I'd also studied city planning by that time at MIT. When I came back to Charlotte, which is a wonderful community, I made friends with an African-American City Council member here in Charlotte who is pretty powerful and pretty influential, and we used to have fireside chats in the evening and talk about Charlotte and its growth and its development. And being the politician he was, he moved on up to the North Carolina Senate and so he had to vacate his Council seat. And I got appointed to fulfill his one year left that he had on his term. And I relished the opportunity and it worked out very well. I ran the next year for a full term and ran pretty well. I enjoyed it.

MARTIN: Given that, I'm wondering how you felt during your 1990 Senate race when Jesse Helms ran the famous hands ad, or the infamous hands ad, I should say. For those who don't remember, the close-up of the two white hands holding a letter, crumpling it up as the narrator says, you needed that job but they had to give it to a minority. And I'm just wondering if you remember how you felt when you saw that.

GANTT: I was shocked. I was very surprised, and I actually did not believe - I actually saw the ad before it actually ran. Someone got the ad and showed it to myself and Melvin Watt, who's now a congressman. And we - he was my campaign manager at that time and we just - we felt that it was an ad that they probably could not run. We think Jesse was at a point where his campaign was lagging a little bit and a lot of his supporters had been neutralized or decided not to vote in the election and he needed something to stimulate them, and he used my support of the 1990 Civil Rights Act as an excuse to run the ad. We didn't think he'd run it, that no one in modern-day politics in the '90s would run an ad like that, but Jesse did.

MARTIN: What do you think now? I mean, on the one hand, you've got North Carolina, it looks like it might be a swing state this November. It seems that Senator Obama may have a chance of winning it in November. On the other hand, when Harold Ford ran for the Senate a couple of years ago, there was an ad which was also perceived by at least some people as being kind of racially motivated. It had this young, white woman saying, you know, call me, Harold. Now of course, people would say, oh, that's - it was intended to - at the time, Harold Ford was not married - it was intended to sort of show his playboy image and so forth. But other people thought it was an obvious attempt to play on kind of racial stereotypes and feelings and it also seems to have worked. So when you put all those things together, you know, what do you think?

GANTT: I often tell people that Senator Helms' positions are the ones that are dying. They're really fading here in the South. And even though we lost two elections to him, I did feel as if we were going to start moving toward a day when those kinds of tactics just won't always work as effectively. And I'll bet you, even in the state of Tennessee, if Harold Ford would have run again, someone using that tactic is not likely to be as effective, as is the case in North Carolina.

Senator Obama, I think, is just a projection of all the efforts that were made in the past, all of the progressive candidates that run in North Carolina. When he came through, he got the same kind of vote, maybe even more overwhelming, in the primary that I got, and my sense is that North Carolina has always been a state that - where Republican-Democrat balance is about three to four percentage points either way. And if Obama runs the right kind of campaign that in fact generates the enthusiasm that I'm already seeing from young people, from African-Americans, from Hispanics, from traditional Democrats who are excited about his candidacy, I believe that North Carolina definitely is in play, and it will reflect the changes that I think have been occurring in this state now for almost a generation of years.

MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share with us, especially if there's a - perhaps a younger you listening to us?

GANTT: The word is hope, and the word is really hope, and that there are all kinds of possibilities out there. I recall the days when Martin Luther King and people like Thurgood Marshall were leading the way. As a young student in college studying architecture, I thought of all the possibilities of how we were going to build this great nation. And you know what, in 40 some odd years, we're on the way. We're not there yet. I don't know that we'll ever reach some perfect state as a country. But the key is that change is possible. You just got to put your mind to it and work for it. People like Barack Obama prove that day in and day out in all kinds of ways. And lots of people who don't get as famous as Barack Obama are sort of doing their things where they are, and that's what's important.

MARTIN: Harvey Gantt, prize-winning architect, the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, joined us from his offices in Charlotte. Mr. Gantt, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GANTT: You're welcome.

CORLEY: And that, of course, was Michel Martin, speaking with Harvey Gantt. Coming up next on Tell Me More, our "What If?" series. What if America does elect a black president? Michel talks with two authors who have written extensively about race. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley.

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