1630 Van Buren Avenue

This is a draft, now being reviewed by members of the McCrorey Heights Neighborhood Association. Please share comments with Tom@HistorySouth.org 

Built in 1955 for Joseph W. Harper II, a letter carrier with the Post Office who also worked as a waiter at Charlotte’s elite country clubs, and his wife Lucy Harper, an entrepreneur whose businesses included Harper’s Barber Shop. The couple lived there until his death in the 1960s and hers in 1975.

During the late 1950s, son Joseph W. Harper III and his bride Mary Turner Harper stayed here at 1630 Van Buren during summer breaks from their teaching jobs in Lincolnton, NC, until building their own house a few blocks away on Dean Street in Charlotte’s Oaklawn Park neighborhood. Both would go on to be important educational leaders. Joseph Harper III became a beloved coach whose name is still remembered Lincolnton, then served for many years as Assistant Principal at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte. Dr. Mary T. Harper became one of first African American professors at UNC Charlotte, then co-founded what is now the Gantt Center for African American Art and Culture.

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A descendant, Lisa Harper, shared memories in 2018: “The home was built for my grandparents Joseph Walter Harper II and Lucy DeVeaux Harper. Both resided in the home until their deaths. My grandfather was employed with the US Postal Service.  My grandmother was a barber.”

Mr. Harper’s position as a letter carrier marked him as a member of the black middle class in the 1950s. Postal jobs ranked among the best employment open to African American men in that era, prized for steady work and adequate pay. They also had a well-defined schedule, usually not more than eight hours a day — which could leave time for a second job. City directories listed Mr. Harper as a waiter at the Charlotte Country Club (1957) and at the Myers Park Country Club (1965), the city’s two top country clubs. The 1959 directory showed him as co-owner with his wife Lucy of the Green Light Smoke Shop.

Lucy DeVeaux Harper (died February 1975)  seems to have been a tireless entrepreneur. In addition to the short-lived Smoke Shop, she operated the Seventh Street Barber Shop (later Harper’s Barber Shop). Directories list her as proprietor as early as 1957, about the time that she and her husband moved into this house, and continuing until her death in 1975.

Prior to moving to McCrorey Heights, the family lived in Charlotte’s center city at 516 E. Seventh Street in the heart of predominantly black First Ward. The barber shop stood in the next block at 638 E.  Seventh Street.

With multiple sources of income from Joseph’s post office and country club jobs, plus Lucy’s business, the couple could afford to hire contractor G.W. Stegall in 1955 to construct a new house on Van Buren Street in the city’s most upscale black neighborhood, McCrorey Heights. By that time the couple’s two children, Gertrude Harper Pearson and Joseph W. Harper III, were already grown and starting households of their own. But the dwelling at 1630 Van Buren Street would be a second home for the extended family.

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Joseph Harper III (1.10.1931 – 2011) showed promise as a leader even in his high school days at Charlotte’s Second Ward High. In that era newspapers seldom covered African American news, but when black YMCAs from across North Carolina convened a youth conference in 1948, it made the pages of the Charlotte Observer. At the opening of the event young Joseph Harper gave the welcoming speech on behalf of his fellow youth in the Hi-Y program, sharing the stage with Charlotte Mayor Herbert Baxter.

After graduation he enrolled at Johnson C. Smith University. In 1952, in the midst of his studies, the Draft Board inducted him into the U.S. Army. Following his tour of duty he returned to JCSU and graduated in 1955 with a B.S. in biology. He would go on to complete a Masters in Science Education at North Carolina A & T University in Greensboro.

His heart was set on teaching and his heart was also set on marrying a particular young woman with similar ambitions. Mary Turner hailed from the Greensboro area, daughter of minister Dr. Wilbert J.W. Turner and school teacher Bessie O. Means Turner. Mary earned a B.A. from Livingstone College in nearby Salisbury (Class of 1955) and would go on to attain a Masters in Education from UNC Greensboro and later a Doctorate in English from Union Graduate School. The two fledgling teachers would wed in 1956.

They both began their classroom careers in 1955, Lisa Harper writes, finding jobs in the small town of Lincolnton about an hour’s drive northwest of Charlotte. Lincolnton would be their place of residence for the next four years, but they would spend time in Charlotte, especially during summer breaks.

They and my father’s sister,  the late Gertrude Harper Pearson (a teacher with CMS) and her husband, the late Henry Pearson ( a local dentist), often visited the Harpers on Van Buren Avenue  during holidays and other occasions,” Lisa Harper recalls. “My mother and my father were working on their graduate degrees during those summers, and lived in Greensboro and Charlotte with both of my grandparents during these times. They also briefly stayed on Van Buren while waiting for their house to be completed. They moved into their home at 1323 Dean Street [in Charlotte’s new Oaklawn Park subdivision] in December of 1959.”

Joseph Harper III continued teaching in Lincolnton even after the family built on Dean Street. He served as coach at Newbold High, Lincoln County’s main black high school, from 1956 to 1968. Harper coached both football (attaining a record of 75 wins and only 29 losses) and basketball (186 wins, 52 losses). The North Carolina High School Athletic Association named him a Coach of at the Year for football in 1966 and basketball in 1967. He was inducted into the Lincoln County Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

But the pull of family ties lured him back to Charlotte. He left Lincolnton to be a teacher and coach at East Mecklenburg High, a formerly all-white school. In the 1970s he moved up to Assistant Principal. For many white parents, Assistant Principal Joseph Harper would be the first African American they had ever encountered in a position of power. In addition to serving as principal, he also helped administer the adult education classes of Central Piedmont Community College, which were held at area high schools. Harper retired in 1991.

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Meanwhile his wife Mary T. Harper was winning a high profile as an educator.  After her early stint in Lincolnton, she came to Charlotte — her husband’s home town — to teach English in the public schools. Future U.S. Congressman Mel Watt was among her early students. In the late 1960s she moved up to the college level, teaching at Johnson C. Smith University. In 1971 she was hired as one of the first African American professors at UNC Charlotte — even as she completed her Ph.D. at Union Graduate School.

She made waves within the university and then in the city as a whole. Dr. Mary T. Harper and fellow professor Dr. Bertha Maxwell Roddey helped create UNC Charlotte’s black studies program, working in partnership with student leaders. It was a new field then, gingerly embraced by formerly all-white colleges. In 1974 Harper authored a proposal: “Vistas Unlimited: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Afro-American Cultural and Service Center.” Harper and Roddey, together with student and community allies, made the Afro-American Cultural Center a reality in 1976. Today it is the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art and Culture.

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Joseph Harper II passed away in the late 1960s. His widow Lucy Deveaux Harper resided here almost until her death in 1975  By the time of the 1981 city directory, Harold Smith, a teacher, lived at 1630 Van Buren Avenue.

VanBuren-1630-a-web

Architecture

Ranch style house, one-story tall in red brick. It has a gable roof that extends at the front to shelter the front stoop, the front door, and the living room “picture” window.

Note that dwellings exist only on this north side of Van Buren Avenue. Houses on the south side were demolished or moved about 1968 to allow construction of the Northwest (Brookshire) Freeway. Today the Freeway’s tree-covered embankment rises above the Avenue.

 

Building permits

VanBuren-1622-1630-1712-permit
Date issued: April 30, 1955
Owner: Joseph W. Harper
Contractor: G.W. Stegall
Estimated Cost:
Other permit info: build residence

First appeared in city directory

1957 – Joseph W. Harper & Lucy D. Harper

He: Letter carrier, Post Office. She:

Also Joseph W. Harper, Jr., & Mary A.
He: Teacher. She: Teacher.

1981 – Harold Smith, employed Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education.

Resources

“Brother Jospeh W. Harper III,” obituary in Oracle, Omega Psi Phi magazine, Summer 2011.

Buford, Bonita, “North Carolina Governor Honors Gantt Center Founders,” website of the Knight Foundation. On-line at: https://www.knightfoundation.org/articles/north-carolina-governor-honors-gantt-center-founders

Harpe, Jason L., Sports in Lincoln County (Arcadia Publishing, 2007), p.42.

Harper, Lisa, e-mails to Tom Hanchett, March 31, April 13 and April 16, 2018.

“The Harper-Roddey Society,” website of the Harvey B. Gantt Center. On-line at: http://www.ganttcenter.org/donate/harper-roddey-society/

“Hi-Y Meeting Opens April 16,” Charlotte Observer, April 11, 1948.

“Mrs. Lucy Deveaux Harper,” death notice in the Charlotte Observer, February 9, 1975.

“A Timeline of Our History,” website of the Harvey B. Gantt Center. On-line at: http://www.ganttcenter.org/about-the-center/timeline/

Turner, Bessie O. Means, obituary in the Greensboro News & Record, December 18, 2003. On-line at: http://www.greensboro.com/obituaries/article_80797f08-a929-5892-bc92-8f681af2dc9a.html