Articulate yet soft spoken, Gantt assumed much of the responsibility for organizing and motivating peers to participate in protests against segregated public accommodations and local businesses that refused to serve and hire African Americans.
First African American student at Clemson College (later Clemson University), architect, politician. Gantt was born in Charleston on January 14, 1943, the first of five children born to Christopher C. Gantt and Wilhelmenia Gordon. He attended Charleston’s public schools, graduating in 1960 from all-black Burke High School where he played football and sang in the school choir. Inspired by his father, a longtime National Association for the Advancement of Colored People member, Gantt developed a reputation as a leader in the organization’s local youth chapter. Articulate yet soft spoken, Gantt assumed much of the responsibility for organizing and motivating peers to participate in protests against segregated public accommodations and local businesses that refused to serve and hire African Americans. Gantt led several protests, notably a sit-in demonstration with twenty-three other teens at the S. H. Kress lunch counter in Charleston in 1960.
Barred because of his race from admission to white-only South Carolina colleges, Gantt attended Iowa State University with the aid of a state stipend, but sued for admission to the architecture program at Clemson College. In January 1963 he became the first African American to attend the school, graduating in 1965. The relative calm of Clemson’s desegregation, especially in contrast to the violence that accompanied similar events in Alabama and Mississippi, helped set the stage for peaceful school desegregation throughout South Carolina.
After earning a Master of City Planning degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, Gantt went on to become a successful architect in Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoyed a distinguished career in politics. A Democrat, Grant served on the Charlotte city council (1975–1979), served two terms as mayor pro tem (1981–1983), and two terms as mayor (1983–1987). In 1990 and 1996, he made unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate, losing both times to the arch-conservative incumbent, Jesse Helms. Gantt’s political appeal was based on his image as being “reasonable,” that is, his ability to form broad-based constituencies. Though accused by Helms of being too liberal (Gantt supported abortion rights and affirmative action, and opposed the death penalty), Gantt received strong support from white voters in both races. Gantt married Lucinda “Cindy” Brawley in 1964 and the couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy.
Bast, Kirk K. “‘As Different as Heaven and Hell’: The Desegregation of Clemson College.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1994): 38–44.
Haeslly, Lynn. “‘We’re Becoming the Mayors’: An Interview with Sit-In Leader Harvey Gantt, Now Charlotte’s Mayor.” Southern Exposure 14, no. 2 (1986): 44–51.