Durham Courthouse to be Named after John Hervey Wheeler

Jan 4, 2019
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC Congressman G. K. Butterfield (NC-01) today announced that his legislation, H.R. 3460, to rename the United States Courthouse located at 323 East Chapel Hill Street in Durham, North Carolina as the “John Hervey Wheeler United States Courthouse” has been signed into law.

“John Hervey Wheeler was a living legend throughout the South,” said Butterfield.  “He was not just a banker and lawyer, he was a visionary African American leader.  Over his long and remarkable career, John Hervey Wheeler played a key role in transforming the City of Durham and helped lead the fight for racial equality in Durham and throughout North Carolina.  In 1964, he became the first African American president of the Southern Regional Council which promoted racial equality in the southern states during the despicable period of segregation by race.  John Hervey Wheeler belongs to the ages. 

“I am happy the Durham courthouse will now be named in John Hervey Wheeler’s honor and his contribution to Durham will long be remembered.  This dedication will serve as a symbol of triumph over racial and economic injustice.”

On July 27, 2017, Butterfield introduced H.R. 3460, a bill to rename the U.S. Courthouse in Durham after John Hervey Wheeler.  H.R. 3460 was passed in the House of Representatives on July 16, 2018 and was passed in the Senate on December 21, 2018.

Click here to watch Congressman Butterfield’s Floor speech in support of H.R. 3460.


Background on John Hervey Wheeler:

John Hervey Wheeler was born in 1908 in the town of Kittrell in Vance County to Mr. John Leonidas Wheeler and the former Margaret Hervey.  The family moved to Durham when his father took a job as an insurance agent with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (NC Mutual).  His father’s job at NC Mutual eventually took the family to Atlanta, Georgia when John Leonidas was promoted to supervisor for the company’s Georgia operations.

John Hervey Wheeler was educated in Atlanta and attended high school at Morehouse Academy, followed by Morehouse College where he graduated summa cum laude with an A.B degree in June 1929.  After graduating from Morehouse College, John Hervey Wheeler returned to Durham and began a decades-long career at Mechanics & Farmers (M&F) Bank, starting first as a bank teller and eventually rising to serve as bank president in 1952.  Mr. Wheeler was forty-four years old, making him the youngest Black bank president in the country at that time.

After returning to Durham, he enrolled in law school at the North Carolina College for Negroes – now North Carolina Central University – where, in 1947, he was among the institution’s first law school graduates. 

In 1935, John Hervey Wheeler became a founding member of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (DCNA), a local civil rights organization that established a means for African Americans to become involved in large-scale community activism in the fight for civil rights and economic justice.  Mr. Wheeler began serving as the organization’s chairman in 1957, and held the position until 1978.  The organization continues today as the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.  It was from DCNA that John Hervey Wheeler rose as a political leader.

As president of M&F Bank, John Hervey Wheeler was instrumental in creating affordable lending options for African Americans that were previously unavailable to them.  He is credited with breaking down barriers in lending so enterprising African Americans could realize their entrepreneurial goals.  As an attorney, John Hervey Wheeler was a stalwart advocate for equality and fairness.  He helped to lead several successful lawsuits that challenged educational segregation including the U.S. Supreme Court case Frasier v. Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina.  

Due to his long and established work in support of civil rights, then-President John F. Kennedy appointed John Hervey Wheeler to the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity- now the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission- in 1961.  In 1963, John Hervey Wheeler became an incorporator of the North Carolina Fund, an ambitious antipoverty agency established by then-Governor Terry Sanford to help eradicate issues of poverty.  The Fund became a model for Lyndon B. Johnson's national War on Poverty initiative.

On December 25, 1935, John Hervey Wheeler married the former Selena Lucille Warren.  They had two children: Julia and Warren Hervey Wheeler.  John Hervey Wheeler passed away on July 6, 1978 at the age of 70.

John Hervey Wheeler was the recipient of many awards and commendations over his long and important career, including the Frank Porter Graham Civil Liberties Award for his defense of freedom for all North Carolinians.  In 1967, John Hervey Wheeler received an honorary degree from Morehouse College for his leadership as a member of the school’s board of trustees.  He has also received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater North Carolina Central University, as well as from Duke University, Shaw University, Johnson C. Smith University, and Tuskegee University.