W.B. Harvell: From Slavery to Political Leader
The Republican Party of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina hosted a convention on Saturday April 12, 1884 to appoint delegates to the State convention. The scene that unfolded that day at the Mecklenburg county courthouse was utterly chaotic, and my great-great-great grandfather W.B. Harvell stood in the middle of it all.
The chaos was born of warring political factions attending the convention. The black “town” faction from Charlotte battled the black “country” faction from rural Mecklenburg County. Both black factions challenged established white party leadership for power. Moles from the Democratic party undermined black political allegiance to the Republican party.
The convention lasted 5 tumultuous hours. A man had his chair kicked right out from under him mid speech. The police were called in at one point to restore order. Toward the day’s end a man called Buck Blythe from Long Creek, Mecklenburg County stood up and expressed his frustration that the city faction was controlling the convention agenda . He led his country faction to walk out of the proceedings. They called for another convention. In the document formalizing their call, Buck signed his name W. (William) B. Harvell, the name he had adopted for himself post-emancipation.
William B. Harvell was born enslaved to William Robinson of Lincoln County, North Carolina around 1828 and named Buck at birth by his enslaved parents Charles and Hannah. In 1832 Robinson sold Buck along with his mother Hannah and siblings Burton, Jefferson, Betsey and Martha to slaveowner John Nantz for $800. By 1837 Buck is willed by Nantz to slave owner John Blythe while Buck’s mother and siblings were distributed to other Nantz family members. By 1853 Bucks parents Charles and Hannah were sold to the Blythes for $300 re-uniting the family.
Post-civil war, William Harvell became a well-known black politician in the Charlotte area. In 1868, a mere three years after emancipation from slavery, he served as a Republican delegate for the state of North Carolina during Reconstruction.
Reconstruction ended in 1877, placing the Democratic party in power in North Carolina and pushing the Republican party out. William remained a Republican party leader through this time period, serving as delegate to Republican conventions such as the one held in 1884 and regularly leading Republican party meetings.
Democrats retained their statewide power through the 1890s until Republicans devised a new strategy through formation of the Fusion Party. North Carolina’s Fusion Party was a coalition of Black Republican and Populist Party members who cooperated in state elections and in state government. William B. Harvell along with other prominent black Republican leaders from Mecklenburg County formed the foundation for this political coalition. He served as political mentor to emerging Fusionist politicians. The success of the Fusion strategy resulted in the election of Daniel Lindsay Russell, as governor of North Carolina in 1897, the first Republican governor to lead the state in 20 years.
William was also a family man and community leader. He married a woman named Eliza while enslaved they had four children including my great-great grandfather Hamilton “Pleasant Ham” Harvell. While enslaved to the Blythes, William organized a sabbath school for the enslaved at the white Hopewell Presbyterian Church. In 1869 post-emancipation he formed Miranda Presbyterian Church where blacks could worship and fellowship with dignity. In addition to the church, he established a one room schoolhouse where my ancestors would be educated.
By the end of William’s life, with the emergence of Jim Crow, his right to vote as a black citizen was taken away through poll taxes, literacy tests and voter intimidation. Imagine this bitter irony. He was born into slavery with no rights, became free as a young man and immediately dedicated his life to the struggle for voting rights only to see them rolled back in his final days.
What amazes me most about William’s story is the clarity with which he re-imagined his life as a free man and the conviction with which he lived his vision. Slavery gave him the name Buck Blythe. In freedom he claimed the name William B. Harvell. He built a life for himself and his family. He fought for civil rights for his community. He created educational opportunities for the next generation. His life circumstances never defined him.
Throughout his life William stood tall amid chaos, conflict and adversity to forge a way forward, for himself, his family and his community, just as he did that day at the 1884 Republican convention. I draw so much inspiration from that.
Let me close by thanking my fellow Mecklenburg County North Carolina genealogy researchers John Blythe, Jeffrey Kiser-Paradi and Amanda Hunter for helping me to connect the dots to uncover the story of my great-great-great grandfather William B. Harvell.