By Ashley Talley, WRAL enterprise executive producer Civil rights lawyer.
Durham, N.C. — Some civil rights activists led marches, gave historic speeches, ran for office or turned the other cheek in the face of police dogs and water hoses.
Other revolutionaries fought quieter wars, wielding influence, offering guidance and battling injustice in courtrooms rather than lunch counters.
John Hervey Wheeler was the latter type of leader.
His is not a name found on street signs or given to federal holidays. Until now, it hasn’t been prominent on any buildings in the Triangle.
But on Tuesday, the federal courthouse in Durham will be named for Wheeler after a bill introduced by 1st District Congressman G.K. Butterfield was signed into law earlier this year.
In his speech on the U.S. House floor proposing the bill, Butterfield said, “Mr. John Hervey Wheeler was, Mr. Speaker, was a prominent African-American bank president, civil rights lawyer, political activist, civil leader, educator, statesman and philanthropist.”
While he never ran for office, Wheeler was known by some as one of the most powerful civil rights leaders in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. He served on many boards, was a founding member of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs and its chairman for more than two decades and ended up assisting several presidents in crafting legislation for equal rights on the national level. While he didn’t seek out the spotlight, he was continuously working behind the scenes as a strategist and advocate for change.
Wheeler was born on Jan. 1, 1908, in Vance County, on the campus of Kittrell College, where his father, John Leonidas Wheeler, was president. The elder Wheeler joined the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Durham as an executive and moved the family to Atlanta, where he ran the company’s Georgia district. John Hervey Wheeler went to school in Atlanta, where he graduated summa cum laude from Morehouse College.
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After graduation, the younger Wheeler moved to Durham, where he began his career at Mechanics and Farmers Bank as a bank teller in 1929. The Durham he returned to and made his home in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s was a city still segregated in most aspects of life; neighborhoods, churches, restaurants and even banks were almost entirely divided along racial lines.
In a 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren for the author’s civil rights oral history project, Wheeler described the vision he held of the future. “This is what integration would mean to me: that the freedom of movement in society would be complete.”
Part of that movement Wheeler envisioned depended not just on voting rights and equal funding for schools, though he worked hard for those issues as well, but on African-Americans’ ability to move up in the world, to own homes and businesses and have just as much chance at success as every other citizen.
From that first teller job, Wheeler became the youngest black bank president in the country at the age of 44, and with that position was able to act on his principles.
“He made loans to churches and businesses,” Butterfield said, “and loans they otherwise would not have been able to obtain because of discriminatory lending practices.”
Brandon Winford, assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, wrote his dissertation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about Wheeler and published a book out of his research, called John Hervey Wheeler, Black Banking and the Economic Struggle for Civil Rights .
Winford said he was drawn to Wheeler as a subject because, while “his contemporaries would have known him,” many people don’t know his name or the influence he had on civil rights in North Carolina.
“He believed that things could be accomplished from the standpoint of organizations – institutional apparatuses, that was his preference,” Winford says. “I call him a ‘black power broker.’ He had his hands in everything related to business, but what most people didn’t know, when you begin to look at his history, his activism, it becomes clear that he has his hand in everything related to higher education, civil rights, everything.”
In a 1979 interview collected in the Southern Oral History Program, an interviewer asked Asa Spaulding, another influential African-American businessman and civil rights leader in Durham, how influential Wheeler was in politics.
Spaulding answered, “Very influential because, one thing about it, John was very much respected because of the position he held, too. He rubbed a lot of whites the wrong way because of that and because he would take a position and he'd stand up and defend it… And sometimes, even no matter how much ambition you may have, if you're going to put the good of the public above your own selfish interest, you may have to sacrifice yourself for the good of the public.”
For Wheeler, the good of the people started inside the doors of businesses built to help them, like banks and insurance companies.
When Warren asked Wheeler how he accounted for the success of his business, Wheeler described the bank serving the black residents of Durham as a necessity to the growth and freedom of the community.
“It’s been a matter of sheer determination,” he said, “and also it’s a question of having been in the kind of business that met a very urgent need among Negro people. A life insurance – there were several life insurance companies that for years refused to write policies on Negroes, and I can think of a very large one in Virginia which is just now returning to the Negro market. They went out of it about 1908 or '09. One of our largest insurance companies in the whole country for years wouldn't write any Negro risks – sick benefit policies – and their life policies were limited to those with the least forfeiture value. In many cases, the rates were higher because the risk was rated as substandard. So that this gave the Negro insurance company a clear field. In the banking business, there has always been a great need for Negro people to pursue a policy of thrift and at one time there were, oh, I'd say well over 50 institutions in the country that called themselves banks that were operated by Negro people.”
While rising in the ranks at the bank and raising two children with his wife, Selena, Wheeler also attended law school at what’s now North Carolina Central University. He went on to represent parties in several landmark integration cases, including one that forced the admission of three black students to UNC-Chapel Hill and another that ruled that Durham Public Schools must be funded equally.
Butterfield pointed out the fitting nature of the location of that decision in his speech to Congress. “The court ordered equal funding for the schools on Jan. 26, 1951, in the very building we are naming today.”
As Wheeler’s activity in the civil rights movement grew, so did his national profile. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Committee on Equal Employment. In 1963, Gov. Terry Sanford brought him aboard as a leader of the North Carolina Fund, and he counseled President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Civil Rights Act. In 1964, Wheeler became North Carolina’s first African-American delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
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“He played a major role in the struggle for equality in education, voting, employment, public accommodations and health care in Durham and North Carolina. He had national standing with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and became president of the Southern Regional Council, one of the leading civil rights organizations in the South,” Winford said. Wheeler was “a black business-activist with legal, political and economic expertise that he used to shape the region's future and make New South prosperity possible on a larger scale through seeing that every southerner had an opportunity to make sure the region would prosper, grow and survive amid the turmoil of the 1960s and beyond. He believed in the integrity of institutions, organizations, and people.”
Winford said thta, when he chose to study him, he knew Wheeler’s wife had donated his personal papers and some effects to Morehouse College in 1979, after he died July 6, 1978. But when he contacted the college, archivists didn’t know where the material was. When Winford located them at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library, he found they had never been processed, so he was able to be the first scholar to study Wheeler’s papers and is proud that others may do so now through the online collection.
Wheeler’s motto was known to be, “The battle for freedom begins every morning.” Winford said Wheeler “believed that the work was continuous and never-ending; that there would always be challenges and/or problems for us to confront even as we celebrated milestone victories. Those words rang true then and they ring true today.”
“John Hervey Wheeler gave so much of himself to his community, state, and country,” Butterfield said in his speech on the House floor. “He accomplished more in his time on Earth than some could hope to accomplish in two lifetimes.”
The courthouse on Chapel Hill Street in Durham will be renamed the John Hervey Wheeler Federal Courthouse at a ceremony at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.