Mary T. Harper

Charlotte has lost a pioneer with the passing of Mary T. Harper, co-founder of the African American cultural center that later became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Harper died in the early evening of Oct.1 in Charlotte. She was 84 years old.

“It is with a profound sense of loss that I share the news of our founding mother, Dr. Mary T. Harper’s passing,” Gantt Center President and CEO David R. Taylor said in a statement. “Fortunately, we had the distinct pleasure of honoring her contributions to this esteemed institution throughout her life.”

In 2018, the Gantt Center recognized its founding mothers — Harper and co-founder Bertha Maxwell-Roddey — by naming the grand lobby in their honor

Mary T. Harper, left, and Bertha Maxwell-Roddey were both educators at UNC Charlotte when they co-founded what evolved to become the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Photo: QCity Metro

Tributes poured in Friday afternoon recalling Harper’s impact.

The Gantt Center tweeted, “Dr. Mary T. Harper was truly dedicated to the betterment of Black people in Charlotte. Her contributions to the Gantt are embedded in this organization’s legacy, and her commitment to the community will never be forgotten. Rest in Power, Dr. Harper. #restinpower #activist.”

Arts supporter Keith Cradle posted “Rest in Power Queen.”

North Carolina realtor Alexys Taylor shared her message in an Instagram story. “For six years, I had the honor of sharing her story to thousands of visitors who came to the Gantt Center. Her legacy will live on. RIP Dr. Mary Harper.”

Andrea Chandler, a cultural facilitator and former Gantt Center staff member, posted, “RIP to one of the founding mothers of the Afro American Cultural Center in Charlotte. Telling the story of their work was like breathing to @alexys_ncrealtor @marigny.four & I. Wow.”

Mary T. Harper holds a proclamation that declared Aug. 22, 2018, Harper-Roddey Day. Photo: QCity Metro

Harper was an assistant professor of English at UNC Charlotte pursuing her doctoral degree when she became aware of a growing desire among African Americans to preserve Charlotte’s historical legacy and important societal contributions made by African Americans.

In 1974, she solicited the advice of Maxwell-Roddey, her mentor and then-director of the Black Studies Center at UNCC, on how to create the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Afro-American Cultural & Service Center. Their academic research uncovered a need to preserve history and landmarks of significance to Charlotte’s Black community, particularly during the period when urban renewal projects were demolishing Black neighborhoods. 

With the support of UNCC’s then-president Bonnie E. Cone, the pair established a space where the public could learn about their heritage and celebrate the contributions of unsung Black originators of art, history and culture. Today, that space is known as the Gantt Center. 

“The Board of Directors and staff of the Harvey B. Gantt Center are forever indebted to Dr. Harper for her vision, her commitment and her determination to preserve Charlotte’s African American story and to create a legacy for future generations,” Taylor said. “We are indeed grateful to her and her family for their support over the past 46 years and we extend our deepest condolences to those she left behind.”

Harper was born in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, in 1935. She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Livingstone College in Salisbury. Her graduate work in English was completed at UNC Greensboro and the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati. 

She taught in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools from 1961 – 1967 and counted former Congressman Mel Watt among her many high school English students. An avid volunteer, Harper lectured throughout the state and nationally on African American literature and writers. 

Harper received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s top award, in November 2014. She’s also the co-namesake of the Gantt Center’s Harper-Roddey Society — the organization’s major donor society.

The Gantt Center reopened Thursday after being closed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. To honor Harper, staff are inviting people to visit the grand lobby named in her honor. No word has been announced on a memorial service.

Janey Tate is QCity Metro’s multimedia reporter covering west Charlotte, culture and small business. The Miami native loves Erykah Badu, "Martin" and all things from the Black ‘90s and early 2000s...

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  1. Both Dr Harper and Dr Maxwell hold special places in my life, and in my heart.
    Dr. Harper, who was my Afro American literature professor at UNCC, became much more than that during my time there; she became an important friend, counseled, and my college mom. I am saddened that she had to leave us.
    Dr. Maxwell was my 5th grade teacher at the then-Alexander Street School Annex, located in E 9th street. She was a beautiful young lady who was no- nonsense, but who spoiled us at the same time! We reestablished our relationship at UNCC. I’m blessed to have had both these ladies in my life.