By Bonita Buford, Harvey B. Gantt Center
As on many campuses in the early 1970s, students at the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) held sit-ins, demanding that the rich history and contributions of African-Americans be acknowledged. Campus leaders heeded the students’ rallying cry and launched what was to become the Black Studies Center at UNCC. Bertha Maxwell, an associate professor at the university, became the Center's first director.
At the same time, Mary Harper, a young assistant professor of English at UNCC pursuing her doctoral degree, sensed a growing desire among African-Americans to preserve Charlotte's historical legacy which was increasingly jeopardized by urban renewal projects. Harper sought out Maxwell with her concept for an Afro-American Cultural and Service Center and Maxwell quickly embraced it.
Forty years and four locations later – at the re-named Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture – 70 guests witnessed both women receiving the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s highest civilian honors.
Gantt Center founders Dr. Bertha Maxwell Roddey and Dr. Mary T. Harper standing in front of the glass mural, Divergent Threads, Lucent Memories. Photo courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center
“We are grateful to Dr. Harper and to Dr. Roddey,” said President & CEO David Taylor. “Without their vision and unwavering determination, the Gantt Center – this prominent, public space established 40 years ago to celebrate the African American experience – would not exist.”
The founders’ nearly lifelong service to the state reached far beyond establishing the “Afro Center.” Dr. Harper taught in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) and counts former US Congressman Mel Watt as one of her high school English students. She left CMS in 1967 to teach at the university level. Dr. Roddey worked for many years in CMS as a classroom teacher and principal and later expanded her professional career at UNCC and other area universities.
Guests at the tea and award ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center
Drs. Harper and Roddey are in good company. They share North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine honor with poet Maya Angelou, evangelist Billy Graham, and basketball superstar Michael Jordan.
North Carolina Representative Kelly Alexander, Jr. presented the awards and reminded the audience that there were many skeptics in 1974.
“Yet, here we are,” he said, “40 years down the trail and we’re sitting in what was created based upon an idea.”
Guests toasting the founders. Photo courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center