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Mary Harper, Co-Founder Of Gantt Center, Dies At Age 84

Courtesy Gantt Center
Mary T. Harper died Thursday at age 84.

Dr. Mary T. Harper, whose idea for an African American cultural center in Charlotte became reality in the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, died Thursday.

Harper was 84. A cause of death was not disclosed.

Harper and Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddy are considered the founding mothers of the Gantt Center because of their efforts to establish what was first called the Afro-American Cultural Center. The museum's lobby is now named in their honor.

According to the Gantt Center, 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 in Charlotte to preserve Black historical legacy and societal contributions in the city.

In 1974, Harper sought advice from her mentor, Maxwell-Roddy, who was then the director of the Black Studies Center at UNCC, on how to create the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Afro-American Cultural & Service Center.

The two, supported by then-UNCC president Bonnie E. Cone, established a space where the public could "learn about Black heritage and celebrate the contributions of unsung Black originators of art, history and culture.”

That museum is now called 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,” Gantt Center president and CEO David R. Taylor said in a statement. “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, and received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Livingstone College in Salisbury. Her graduate work in English was completed at University of North Carolina at Greensboro and at the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati. She taught in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools from 1961 – 1967 and counted former U.S. Congressman Mel Watt among her high school English students. 

“Because of the vision that Dr. Maxwell-Roddey and Dr. Harper put into action, the Gantt Center now stands as a beacon in Charlotte to showcase the culture, the history and creative ingenuity of the African-American community and the African diaspora,”  Taylor said.

Jodie Valade has been a Digital News and Engagement Editor for WFAE since 2019. Since moving to Charlotte in 2015, she has worked as a digital content producer for NASCAR.com and a freelance writer for publications ranging from Charlotte magazine to The Athletic to The Washington Post and New York Times. Before that, Jodie was an award-winning sports features and enterprise reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She also worked at The Dallas Morning News covering the Dallas Mavericks — where she became Mark Cuban's lifelong email pen pal — and at The Kansas City Star. She has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University and a Master of Education from John Carroll University. She is originally from Rochester Hills, Michigan.