CHARLOTTE, N.C. The framed photo hangs in a hallway of Harvey Gantts uptown home, a bittersweet reminder of what might have been as well as a portent of what would come.
It shows a 29-year-old Barack Obama in a Boston apartment, stretching open a blue denim shirt to reveal a white Gantt for U.S. Senate T-shirt.
To Harvey an early inspiration, reads the inscription. Barack Obama.
The 1990 race was the first of two Gantt lost to Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Obama was a third-year Harvard law student as he watched the election night returns. He would go on to run himself 14 years later in a race that would make him just the third African-American senator in over a century and set his course to the White House.
At the end of the day, Gantt says, Id like to say I inspired him a little bit.
And he did.
Harvey Gantts run for statewide office helped set the course for young African-American leaders who wanted to become more engaged in the political process, Obama says. His decision to enter the race showed great courage and a strong commitment serving as an inspiration for future leaders.
Now 69, Gantt will speak to the Democratic convention Wednesday, paying tribute to the late city council member Susan Burgess, an early, energetic champion of Charlotte as a convention host. Gantt has been deeply involved in putting the event together, raising money and chairing a steering committee.
On Thursday hell watch President Obama accept nomination for a second term just down the street from his Fourth Ward home in a city he helped shape, a few blocks from buildings he designed and a museum that bears his name.
Gantt, still a working architect, shrugs attention like a man whos had his share. He reluctantly consents to an interview, just as he reluctantly agreed to lend his name to the new African-American cultural museum. He initially turned down an offer to speak at this years Democratic convention before agreeing.
I said Ive had my time on stage, Gantt says. Im satisfied to be in the background.
Its been nearly 50 years since Gantt first stepped on stage. Not because he wanted to be a pioneer but because he wanted a chance to study architecture in his home state.
He integrated Clemson University and went on to become Charlottes first black mayor and the first African-American nominated for major office in North Carolina, and one of the first in the South.
The 1990 Obama photo hangs next to a poster from his first Senate race. That shows a younger Gantt with darker hair and tighter build, confident in the possibilities that lay ahead.
He might have been Obama before Obama, says friend James Ferguson.
Drama in South Carolina
In the fall of 1962, thousands of federal troops and U.S. marshals descended on Oxford, Miss. Theyd been called out to help James Meredith become the first black student to enroll in Ole Miss. Rioting killed two and injured hundreds.
Four months later the civil rights drama turned to South Carolina.
At the center was a 20-year-old student from Charleston who wanted to study architecture. No black college in the state offered it; no public college that did would accept him. Hed ended up at Iowa State University, where the Midwestern winters proved too much.
In 1962 he filed a suit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. South Carolina officials, intent on avoiding another Mississippi, accepted the inevitable.
This should be done with dignity, said then-Gov. Ernest Hollings. It must be done with law and order.
The cold January day in 1963 began quietly in Gantts Charleston home. The family joined hands and bowed their heads. His father, Christopher, a shipyard worker whod raised his family in segregated public housing, recited the 27th Psalm.
The Lord is my light and my salvation, he prayed. Whom shall I fear?
Hours later, Gantt pulled into the Clemson campus in his attorneys big Buick. Roadblocks were everywhere. Police helicopters hovered overhead.
Cecil Williams watched it all through a camera lens.
A photographer for Jet magazine, he was one of a handful of black faces in the crowd. African-American employees had been told to stay home. Williams, whod chronicled Gantts legal battle, shot rolls of pictures that day. One shows Gantt, in a plaid overcoat and dark fedora against the January cold, make his way to the registrar amid throngs of reporters.
He had a great disposition, he smiled, he was not pushy, recalls Williams. I dont remember seeing a frown on his face during this entire ordeal.
Gantts peaceful entry even impressed a conservative TV commentator from Raleigh.
If ever a man put his best foot forward, Harvey Gantt has done so, Jesse Helms told his audience. His conduct will not cause South Carolinians to relish court orders relating to integration. But he has done a great deal probably more than he himself realizes to establish respectful communications across sensitive barriers in human relations.
Helms would be elected to the U.S. Senate nine years later.
Gantt went on to get an architectural degree from Clemson and a masters in urban planning from MIT. He moved to Charlotte in the mid-60s.
He saw planning, like architecture, as a series of building blocks. Buildings are shaped one step at a time. So are plans. So are public policies.
But he got into politics by accident.
Acceptable to everybody
In 1974 Charlottes African-American leaders faced a dilemma. Fred Alexander, Charlottes only black city council member, had been elected to the state Senate and they needed a replacement. They paid a call on Gantt.
He was sort of a default candidate, recalls Ferguson, a veteran civil rights attorney. He was acceptable to everybody.
Gantt was appointed to the council and later won election. In 1979 he ran for mayor and lost but ran again and won four years later, becoming the first black mayor in the majority-white city.
As leader of a city just beginning to swell, he pushed for balanced growth and a strong central core. He won re-election with the support of many business leaders who saw him as a symbol of a Southern city on the rise.
Talking to him about building a great city is something he understood, says Hugh McColl Jr., then chairman and CEO of what would become the Bank of America.
But in 1987 mounting frustration with slow road growth and rising taxes helped Republican Sue Myrick turn back Gantts bid for a third term.
By 1990, Gantt had decided to run for the Senate. He won a Democratic runoff over future Gov. Mike Easley and faced Helms that November.
Running for his fourth term, Helms was a conservative icon. He and his National Congressional Club had revived the political life of Ronald Reagan in the 1976 North Carolina primary and fostered a national conservative resurgence.
Conservatives saw Helms as their bulwark against big government and defender on social issues. Liberals saw him as a wrongheaded obstructionist.
His 1984 race against then-Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt was at the time the most expensive Senate race in history. Six years later the prospect of the Southern conservative running against a black man also captured national attention and drew millions for each side.
Gantt supporters saw it as a chance for another breakthrough. Helms supporters saw it in less historical terms.
Harvey Gantt was fairly liberal and that was a weakness in North Carolina, says Carter Wrenn, a Raleigh strategist who ran Helms campaign. We didnt look at it as any huge watershed. It was another Senate race. We never had an easy one.
Race, always an undercurrent, made headlines in the final days. Thats when Helms campaign ran an ad that showed white hands crumpling a rejection letter. You needed that job, a narrator said, but they had to give it to a minority.
Had Gantt beaten Helms he would have vaulted to national attention, much like Obama did in 2004. Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, says in some ways he won by losing.
(He) expanded the scope of offices for which African-Americans could run, Black says.
On election night 1990, Helms won 53 percent to 47 percent. Barack Obama watched the returns in the Beacon Hill apartment of Harvard Law classmate Brad Berenson. When results were in, his wife snapped the picture of Obama showing off his Gantt T-shirt.
It wasnt hard as a friend of his to imagine him in later years being in Harvey Gantts position, says Berenson, that is, running for Senate as an African-American.
Part of a journey
In January 2005, members of the Congressional Black Caucus gathered at the Library of Congress for their ceremonial swearing-in. The incoming chairman, Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte, found himself talking to the new senator from Illinois.
I was trying to find out about him and he was trying to find out about Harvey and my relationship with Harvey, recalls Watt, Gantts friend, neighbor and former campaign manager.
How did Watt come to manage the 1990 race, Obama wanted to know. Why did polls consistently show Gantt ahead?
It was clear to me that he recognized that Harvey had raised his aspirations and made a lot of people think that what was thought impossible was possible, Watt says. He understood that a number of people had paid substantial dues for him to be there. (He) knew his place in the continuum of history.
Gantts friends like that analogy: Black history, like architecture, as a series of building blocks. As attorney James Ferguson puts it, part of a journey that started on a slave ship over 400 years ago.
Like Gantt, Ferguson and Watt had been part of a new generation of black professionals in Charlotte. The three became good friends. So did their kids. Watt and Gantt even lived side by side.
Sometimes the historical continuum ran through their kitchens.
Their kids hung out at each others homes. They went to good colleges. They played tennis on the backyard court Gantt and Watt shared.
And since elementary school the kids counted in their group a friend named Anthony Foxx, whose grandfather, James Foxx, had been Gantts own political mentor.
Anthony Foxx would go on to the city council in 2005. Two years later he confided to Gantt that he wanted to run for mayor. And when he did in 2009, it was in Gantts living room that he sought advice.
Harvey blazed a trail for a lot of people including me, Foxx says. The great advantage I have that he didnt have is I have him.
Gantt likes to think that he took away one hurdle for Foxx, and for that matter Obama.
They didnt have to be the first, he says.
This week hes ready to see another first.
In my wildest dreams, he says, I never would have thought wed come to the point where were talking about the re-election of a black president.