Two N.C. Republican Legislators Block Effort to Rename Building After Black Leader

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) described his mentor John Hervey Wheeler as a “political genius.” (Image courtesy of Ebony.)

A North Carolina Democrat is fighting to have a federal building renamed to honor his late mentor, but two Republican lawmakers have refused to sign off on the bill.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) introduced new legislation on July 27 proposing to rename the U.S. Post Office and federal courthouse building in downtown Durham after African-American businessman, lawyer and civil rights activist John Hervey Wheeler, The Herald-Sun reported.

Wheeler served as president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham and helped found the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs in 1935. The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography states that the Morehouse College graduate gained a reputation for radicalism due to his efforts to integrate the University of North Carolina and Durham public schools, and his fight for reenfranchisemt, among other causes.

If Butterfield’s bill gets approved, the building would be renamed the “John Hervey Wheeler United States Courthouse.” However, the congressman said a pair of Republican lawmakers won’t hear of such a change.

“Eight of the [state’s] 10 Republicans were willing to sign on as co-sponsors, but I had pushback from two,” he told the newspaper. “That was surprising and disappointing.”

Butterfield said U.S. Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) and U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) are blocking his efforts to honor Wheeler because he rejected a bill to name another federal building after longtime Sen. Jesse Helms.

Helms represented North Carolina from 1973 to 2003 and was known for his outspokenness and polarizing viewpoints, The Herald-Sun reported. Butterfield described the now-retired senator as “repugnant.”

“[Helms] demonstrated racist behavior and imposed on North Carolina an image that we have yet to recover from,” he said, adding that the chances of him ever signing a bill to rename a building after the senator were “less than zero.”

Stephen Billy, a spokesman for Pittenger’s office, said the congressman would defer his comment on the matter to Holding because the courthouse “is in Congressman Holding’s district and that should be his choice.”

HR 3460 was first introduced in the U.S. House and was later referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, headed by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), according to the newspaper. The proposal must win the committee’s approval before it moves to the House floor for a vote. A favorable vote would then push it to the Senate.

The lack of support from two members could prove challenging for Butterfield’s efforts to honor Wheeler, however.

“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,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham), who described Wheeler as a calm, thought-provoking man.

Butterfield agreed.

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

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