Durham County

Jesse Helms blocking honor for Black Wall Street leader?

Senator Jesse Helms speaks in this archive photo to a meeting of the N.C. Broadcasters Association at the North Raleigh Hilton.
Senator Jesse Helms speaks in this archive photo to a meeting of the N.C. Broadcasters Association at the North Raleigh Hilton. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

North Carolina partisan politics don’t stay confined to Raleigh’s State House.

Go north on I-95 for several hours, reach the Capitol and find North Carolina’s political tensions extending their reach into the U.S. House too.

As in a current standoff of sorts in the U.S. House of Representatives.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., introduced a bill Thursday proposing to rename the U.S. Post Office and federal courthouse building in downtown Durham as the “John Hervey Wheeler United States Courthouse” in honor of his late mentor.

But, Butterfield said, two North Carolina Republican congressmen will not sign the bill.

“Eight of the (state’s) 10 Republicans were willing to sign on as cosponsors, but I had pushback from two,” Butterfield said. “That was surprising and disappointing.”

Wheeler was the president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham and at one time headed The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

U.S. Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., and U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., won’t allow Butterfield to easily honor Wheeler, Butterfield said, because, he refused to sign a bill to name a different federal building in North Carolina after longtime U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Pittenger deferred comment to Holding, his spokesman Stephen Billy said, because “the building of interest,” proposed to honor Helms, “is in Congressman Holding’s district and that should be his choice.”

Efforts to reach Holding were unsuccessful.

Helms was an outspoken, often polarizing, senator representing North Carolina from 1973 to 2003.

“Senator Jesse Helms was repugnant,” Butterfield said. “He demonstrated racist behavior and imposed on North Carolina an image that we have yet to recover from.”

When Butterfield was asked what the chances are of his ever signing onto a bill to name a building after Helms, he replied, “Less than zero.”

The bill

Butterfield introduced the bill to rename the building at at 323 E. Chapel Hill St. despite expected opposition.

The bill, HR 3460, was introduced in the U.S. House and was referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, chaired by U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-PA.

If the committee votes in favor of the bill, it would move to the House floor for a vote. A favorable vote would send the bill to the Senate.

Bills of this nature typically aren’t controversial. But Congress looks for all of a state’s representatives to support them, Butterfield said, and without two members’ support, passing this bill may prove a challenge.

“Mr. Helms was an international figure who was highly controversial and John Wheeler was a state figure, who was a state leader, who was not controversial. … And [Holding] didn’t accept that,” Butterfield said.

State Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said Wheeler was a calm, thought-provoking man who didn’t create conflict.

“If congressmen have a problem with naming a building after a man who worked to bring the community together and into what it is today, then they have a problem,” Michaux said.

‘Political genius’

When Butterfield moved to Durham in 1965 to attend NCCU, one of the first people he sought out in the city was his father’s friend “Mr. Wheeler.”

The two developed their own relationship and the congressman still hangs a picture of Wheeler on his office wall in Durham.

“He was the political genius and the legal genius in Durham and everybody looked up to Mr. Wheeler – clearly,” Butterfield said. “He helped African Americans build homes … helped African Americans start businesses in Durham.”

Wheeler was already a successful lawyer who’d challenged educational segregation in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, when Butterfield came to Durham.

Whenever the young Butterfield, as an undergraduate and law student, “ran short of money,” he’d go into M&F and Wheeler would authorize a short-term loan, Butterfield said.

In 1972, Wheeler took Butterfield to his first Democratic National Convention in Miami. “It was awesome,” he said.

After his NCCU law school classes, Butterfield in the evenings worked the gates for Eastern Air Lines at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Wheeler was a frequent flyer who traveled to New York City nearly ever week.

“So, I had Flight 576 to LaGuardia Airport at night and he was often on Flight 576,” Butterfield said. “We would sit there and we would talk and we interacted. You know? For years.”

They spent a lot of time together.

“I went to his funeral in 1978,” the congressman said. “I remember it.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks