Copyright notice

This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

Is anything in this article factually incorrect? Please submit a comment.

Printer-friendly page
Average: 3.6 (14 votes)

Wheeler, John Hervey

by Walter B. Weare, 1994

Related Entries: African Americans; Civil Rights

1 Jan. 1908–6 Jul. 1978

John Harvey Wheeler, black businessman and civil rights leader, was born in Kittrell on the campus of Kittrell College, an African Methodist Episcopal church school of which his father was president. His mother was Margaret Hervey Wheeler. The elder Wheeler (John Leonidas, 1869–1957), a graduate of Wilberforce University and the University of Chicago, gave up his academic career in 1908 for an executive position with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham. As the firm expanded throughout the South to become America's largest black business, he was transferred to Atlanta to direct the Georgia district. There John H. Wheeler spent his early years, attending the Atlanta public schools and graduating summa cum laude from Morehouse College in 1929.

In the same year he left Atlanta for Durham, where he went to work for the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, a sister institution to North Carolina Mutual. Under the tutelage of Richard L. McDougald, bank president and community leader, Wheeler adopted a model of black leadership. In 1952 he assumed the presidency of Mechanics and Farmers Bank. But for Wheeler, as for McDougald before him, the bank served as a base for action that ranged well beyond providing financial services. Much of this higher purpose was a given in Afro-American culture, the special burden of race relations. Even in the day-to-day granting of loans to black citizens, Mechanics and Farmers was more than a bank. Under Wheeler's direction it became an instrument for social change, making possible the purchase of decent homes, the acquisition of federal loans for housing projects, and the relaxation of racial barriers among white banks that learned from Wheeler that black borrowers were good risks.

Wheeler was never content, however, to work for change through economic uplift and indirect means. Happily for him, black Durham offered support and inspiration for direct politics. In 1935 he joined others to found the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, a black political organization that became one of the South's most effective local movements in the struggle for reenfranchisement, civil rights, and economic justice. It was in the DCNA that Wheeler served his apprenticeship and developed his mastery of New South politics. He presided over the committee from 1957 until his death, generally choosing to work behind the scenes as strategist and statesman. His choice of political style may have been limited, however, because he typically stood ahead of the times and was judged as too radical for the DCNA to put forward as a candidate for public office.

His reputation for "radicalism" stemmed from his efforts to build a local coalition of black and white workers, from his battle to integrate The University of North Carolina and the Durham public schools, from his unflinching endorsement of the sit-in movement, and, overall, from his lifelong demands for full equality. It would be correct, for example, to consider the completion of his law degree from North Carolina College in 1947 as instrumental to his quest for justice rather than as a supplement to his banking career. In a theoretical sense he played a key, functional role in the racial politics of the New South, especially in the difficult years before 1964. In these "forgotten years," figures like Wheeler made the "impossible" demands out of which "safer" black leaders could negotiate the "possible," and out of which younger black leaders could find a historical base to continue the process.

By the 1960s history began to fall into step with Wheeler, and public recognition quickly followed. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity; in 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson assigned him to the National Housing Corporation, a body created by the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. In the meantime the federal government had commissioned him to tour West Germany as part of a team evaluating the long-term effects of the Marshall Plan. In 1966 the State Department sent him to Egypt and Syria as a consultant and lecturer. His relationship with President Johnson earned him an invitation to participate in the drafting of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. During the period 1963–68 he also served as president of the Southern Regional Council.

Such recognition in the nation and abroad made it difficult to deny him visibility at home. In 1964 he became North Carolina's first black delegate to the National Convention of the Democratic party; he continued his formal role in the state party and eventually served as its financial director. In 1970 Duke University awarded him an honorary doctor of humanities degree.

In his personal life Wheeler was an ardent tennis player and an accomplished violinist. His friends and colleagues remembered him as a renaissance man and a few months after his death established the John H. Wheeler Foundation, with the first Wheeler Scholarship awarded in 1979. He married Selena Warren, and they had two children, Warren Hervey and Julia. Wheeler was a life member of the NAACP and a member and trustee of St. Joseph's AME Church in Durham; he belonged to Omega Psi Phi fraternity and was a Mason and a Shriner. He was buried in Beechwood Cemetery, Durham.


Robert Louis Bowman, "Negro Politics in Four Southern Counties" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1964)

Margaret Elaine Burgess, Negro Leadership in a Southern City (1960)

Durham Morning Herald , 2 Aug. 1953

William R. Keech, The Impact of Negro Voting (1968)

Everett Carll Ladd, Negro Political Leadership in the South (1966)

Murray J. Marvin, correspondence (May 1979) and personal contact (1968, 1970, 1972, 1979)

Nat. Cyc. Am. Biog ., vol. 61 (1982 [portrait]); Conrad O. Pearson, personal contact, 1968, 1979

Charles Clinton Spaulding Papers (North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Durham)

Viola G. Turner, personal contact, 1968, 1979

Walter B. Weare, Black Business in the New South: A Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (1973)

John Hervey Wheeler, personal contact, 1972

Additional Resources:

UNC, DocSouth, Documenting the American South with Asa Spaulding about John Wheeler, Head of the Durham Committee on Nego Affairs:

Winford, Brandon K. “‘The Bright Sunshine of a New Day’: John Hervey Wheeler, Black Business, and Civil Rights in North Carolina, 1929-1964.” The North Carolina Historical Review 93, no. 3 (2016): 235–78.

Image Credit:

"Courtesy of the Durham County Library, North Carolina Collection Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Blue v. Durham Public School District lawsuit were (from left) M. Hugh Thompson, Oliver W. Hill, John H.Wheeler and Martin A. Martin. Wheeler and Thompson were from Durham, while Hill and Martin were from Richmond, Va.  Read more: The Herald-Sun - Before Brown there was Blue." The Herald-Sun, 2012. Available from (accessed March 9, 2012).


Origin - location: 


This story certainly should be told to each child, especially African American children, in the state of North Carolina. Thank you Representative G.K. Butterfield for your service and efforts. I just saw you on Thursday, October 24, 2019 on CSpan at the U.S. Capitol during the Memorial for Representative Elijah Cummings the 1st African American Legislator to lay in state at the "People's House." Your countenance, and body of work on issues for all Americans spoke (and continues to speak) volumes. Thank You Honorable G. K. Butterfield (D-NC)

The Durham, NC History so abundant in inspiration and source material for documentaries, plays, books, movies and digital renderings. OK Creatives, lets get to work breathing new life into these stories so that we may share with emerging generations and inspire them to action. ----- Dennis B. Rogers, PhD

There is a story not yet told. On the first of August, 2017, North Carolina Congressman G.K. Butterfield introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposing to honor John Hervey Wheeler by renaming the U.S. Post Office and federal courthouse building in downtown Durham as the John Hervey Wheeler United States Courthouse”. Republican Representative, George Holding, is refusing to sign off on the bill unless Butterfield will agree to sign off on a bill to rename another Federal building after the late Senator Jesse Helms. Helms was a sometimes polarizing figure who often worked to divide people and John Wheeler was one who work to bring people together.

Then came August 11th and 12th 2017 and the events at Charlottesville, Virginia. This was followed by some Durham sympathizers pulling down a confederate memorial statue at the very same building being proposed to honor John Wheeler. It seems that there is no problem memorializing those who seek to divide us but we can not memorialize those who worked to bring people together.

Hopefully this too will soon change!

Fortunately sometimes things turn out exactly right. The Durham County Courthouse was renamed the John Hervey Wheeler County Courthouse thanks to Representative G.K. Butterfield. John Hervey is my uncle and for his life’s work in civil rights and banking he fully deserved this honor.
Janice Wheeler Brown Carden

Add a comment

PLEASE NOTE: NCpedia provides the comments feature as a way for viewers to engage with the resources. Comments are not published until reviewed by NCpedia editors at the State Library of NC, and the editors reserve the right to not publish any comment submitted that is considered inappropriate for this resource. NCpedia will not publish personal contact information in comments, questions, or responses. If you would like a reply by email, note that some email servers, such as public school accounts, are blocked from accepting messages from outside email servers or domains. If you prefer not to leave an email address, check back at your NCpedia comment for a reply. Please allow one business day for replies from NCpedia. Complete guidelines are available at