CHARLOTTE — Burke High School graduate Harvey Gantt spoke to the nation Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention, another honor for the Charlestonian and hero of desegregation at Clemson University.
Gantt, a social and political trailblazer who also was the first black mayor of Charlotte, introduced a video tribute of recently deceased Democratic Party stalwarts.
It was a brief appearance, a day later than originally scheduled, but it underscored Gantt’s role as a pioneer who broke down racial barriers, something President Barack Obama did decades later. Gantt, 69, the first black student admitted to Clemson, said he was shaped largely by family dinnertime conversations at his childhood home in downtown Charleston.
One of the most notable chats occurred on May 17, 1954, when the family read The Evening Post’s report that the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in its Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
“I had no idea that I would be a pioneer,” he said. “We were just talking generally about what would happen to black people as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision and, believe me, that had a certain amount of excitement for me, my classmates, for African-Americans all over the community.”
Gantt went on to become a successful architect. He designed several buildings in Charleston, including the new Burke High School, Sanders Clyde Elementary School and the International Longshoremen’s Association Hall.
His political career fell just short of the national level when he lost two U.S. Senate races to North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, but his place in U.S. history already was secure.
A bronze plaque in the Burke lobby acknowledges Gantt’s accomplishments.
Principal Maurice Cannon said he is glad to see an alumnus getting the national stage.
“It is significant, an alumnus of Burke High School having an opportunity to address the nation,” Cannon said. “Considering Harvey Gantt was a trailblazer for seeking equality and educational rights for all citizens of the United States of America, now for him to be able to stand and address our great nation, we are proud that there is that tie to Burke High School,” Cannon said.
The local YWCA gives an annual Harvey Gantt Triumph award to recognize a person’s fight against institutionalized racism.
“We’re very proud of Mr. Gantt, not just his political career but his contribution to the architectural world,” YWCA Executive Director Kathleen Rodgers said of Gantt speaking at the convention.
Former Democratic National Chairman Don Fowler of Columbia said Gantt was the No. 1 hero in the desegregation of Clemson, followed by then-Gov. Fritz Hollings, who helped ensure that it went peacefully.
Gantt spoke to South Carolina’s Democratic breakfast this week and told delegates about how he felt the night Obama became the first black U.S. president.
“My wife and I decided we would not go to a party that night at all. We wanted to be in our own living room quietly taking this in,” Gantt recalled. Once it became official that Obama had won, he called his parents, who live in West Ashley.
He said his father grew up in Adams Run and never had a chance to go to high school, and his mother labored hard for him too. “I wanted to talk to my dad because he was so proud of the day that a judge for a court of appeals said Harvey Gantt has the right to go to Clemson,” he said.
“He was not allowed to get a high school education. He didn’t go to Charleston, to Burke High School, because he was the oldest in the family and had to keep the family farm.”
Gantt asked his father, a member of the NAACP, if he could imagine seeing a black man elected president. While his father indicated that he never envisioned that happening, “he believed in the promise of America, that it was being made real right before his eyes.”
Dave Munday contributed to this report.