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John H. Wheeler collection

 Collection — Box: 1-225
Identifier: 0000-0000-0000-0133

Scope and contents note

This collection documents the life and work of John H. Wheeler, a businessman, bank president, community leader, civil rights activist, and lawyer. The collection spans the years from 1897 to 1978 with the bulk of the materials dating from 1950-1978. The majority of the collections consists of items related to the organizations that Wheeler was associated with, both local to Durham, NC and national organizations. Included in the collection are materials related to Wheeler's career as a President of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, located in Durham, NC. along with the financial records of civil rights and civic organizations that worked with Mechanics and Farmers Bank. Mechanics and Farmers Bank was a black-owned financial institution in a city that boasted several thriving black enterprises, including the North Caroline Mutual Life Insurance Company (N.C. Mutual).

Beyond his work as a businessman, Wheeler also served as a civil rights leader both in North Carolina and nationally through his work in many organizations. This collection documents his extensive civil rights work through meeting minutes, correspondence, founding documents, organizational records, financial records, and reports from the various committees, commissions, and organizations in which Wheeler served. Notable materials include documents from Wheeler's time as the chairman of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, and his service as the first Black president of the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based interracial civil rights organization engaged in research and publication that influenced policy-makers. The collection also includes Wheeler's records during several presidential appointments in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, most notably on the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. The Governor of North Carolina also appointed Wheeler as the first Black delegate to represent North Carolina at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Materials include Wheeler's interest and work with several urban housing projects including; the Commission on Race and Housing, the Commission on Urban and Slum Problems, and the City of Durham Community Development Housing Rehabilitation program. Other notable organizations in the collection include Wheeler's work with the US-South Africa Leader Exchange Program, the North Carolina Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and his work with the Lincoln Hospital located in Durham, NC.

The collection reflects Wheeler's other interests beyond his civic and civil rights work, including his participation in the American Tennis Association, his membership in the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and his membership in the Prince Hall Masons. Additionally, Wheeler collected pamphlets, newspaper articles, programs and brochures related to music, the theater, and poetry. Other personal papers such as certificates, degrees, and awards Wheeler received throughout his life-time, along with scrapbooks and photo albums that document his travels, family vacations, and personal interests. A small portion of Wheeler's writings speeches, and personal correspondence are also included.


  • Creation: 1897-1978
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1940-1978


Rights Statement

All materials in this collection are either protected by copyright or are the property of the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc., and/or the copyright holder as appropriate. For more information, please contact

Biographical note

John Hervey Wheeler (January 1, 1908-July 6, 1978) was a prominent African American bank president, civil rights lawyer, political activist, civic leader, educator, statesman, and philanthropist. He was also an accomplished violinist and avid tennis player. On Christmas Day 1935, Wheeler married the former Selena Lucille Warren (1912-2014), the daughter of Julia McCauley and Dr. Stanford L. Warren, a co-founder and one time president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank (M&F Bank). They had two children: Julia and Warren Hervey Wheeler. John Hervey spent his professional and public life based in Durham, North Carolina and by the 1960s was the state's most influential black power broker; he was among the top civil rights leaders in the South. In 1929, he joined the M&F Bank and remained with the financial institution his entire career, rising from the position of bank teller to the presidency. He served in the latter capacity from August 1952 until his death. Wheeler was born on January 1, 1908 in Kittrell, North Carolina (Vance County) to John Leonidas and Margaret Hervey Wheeler. The Wheeler family came from the town of Nicholasville in Jessamine County, Kentucky.

John Hervey attended high school at Morehouse Academy (1921-1925) and then matriculated to Morehouse College (1925-1929), where he graduated summa cum laude with an A.B. degree in June 1929.

After graduation, John Hervey moved to Durham where he began his business career with the M&f Bank as a bank teller. The M&F Bank was established as a sister institution to the N.C. Mutual in 1908. He advanced through the company's ranks, becoming assistant cashier (1939), cashier (1940), then cashier and executive vice president (1944), before becoming bank president in 1952 at the age of forty-four, at the time the youngest black bank president in the country. In 1950, he became president of the National Negro Bankers Association (NNBA), the professional organization to the larger black banking industry; he served two terms with the NNBA. As M&F Bank president, Wheeler carried the banner as a community bank while also expanding its reach. He used banking to break down artificial barriers in order to open up total markets to black businesses and to create competition with white businesses to compel them to extend their policies to blacks. Under Wheeler's leadership, M&F Bank went from operating branches in just two cities (Durham and Raleigh), to also having a branch in Charlotte. During his tenure, the bank's assets went from just over $5 million when he took over, to $15 million in 1964, $21.5 million in 1970, and reached $41 million by 1976.

During World War II, Wheeler enrolled in law school at the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) where, in 1947, he was among the first law school graduates. He had a strong commitment to black higher education in the South and in 1935 began his tenure on the boards of trustees at Morehouse College and Atlanta University. He became a political activist through his involvement with an organization known as the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (DCNA), a civil rights organization founded by black leaders in Durham in 1935. The DCNA was organized to "consider matters affecting the interest of the Negroes in the Community, to devise and sponsor programs designed to promote the welfare and to otherwise act in behalf of the Negro Citizens." Wheeler had stints as the DCNA's economic committee chairman and then education committee chairman (1944-1957) before taking over as the organization's chairman in 1957, a position he held until 1978. The position as DCNA chairman gained him a great deal of political influence as the organization helped African Americans gain a significant voting bloc in the city of Durham. Wheeler’s position as chairman also brought with it a high level of political clout with the state Democratic Party.

It was through the DCNA's education committee that Wheeler led a legal challenge toward school equalization in Durham and other cities across North Carolina. In 1951, a judge ruled in the case Blue, et. al. v. Durham Public School District (1951) that "plaintiffs have been, and are, discriminated against on account of their race and that they are entitled to injunctive relief." In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, Wheeler and other black leaders from across North Carolina called for immediate implementation. They ultimately filed several school desegregation suits before the decade ended. In 1956, he and several other Durham attorneys, including future CORE chairman Floyd B. McKissick, Sr. won the U.S. Supreme Court case Frasier v. Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina (1956), which led to the first three African American undergraduates to gain admission to the state's flagship institution.

John H. Wheeler's civil rights leadership reached its zenith during the 1960s. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (PCEEO). In 1963, Wheeler became an incorporator of the North Carolina Fund, an anti-poverty agency established by the state’s governor Terry Sanford to help eradicate issues of poverty; the Fund became a model for Lyndon B. Johnson's national War on Poverty initiative. Wheeler joined the organization's board of directors and his bank became the repository for its accounts. In 1964, Sanford named Wheeler as a delegate to the Democratic Party’s national convention, the first African American from the state to do so. That same year, Wheeler became the first African American president of the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a civil rights organization founded in 1944 and based in Atlanta, Georgia. Beginning in May 1962, the SRC became the administrator over the Voter Education Project (VEP), which helped increase voter registration in the South leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the last decade of his life, John Hervey Wheeler continued his activism and refused to relinquish the bulk of his numerous responsibilities. During this same time, Wheeler was on the receiving end of many awards and accolades for his work in the field of civil rights. In 1967, his alma mater presented him with an honorary doctorate degree for his leadership as a member of the school's board of trustees. He had previously received honorary doctorates from Shaw University, Johnson C. Smith University, and Tuskegee University). In 1970, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Duke University, where former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford became president. That same year, he received the Frank Porter Graham Civil Liberties Award for his defense of freedom for all North Carolinians; the next year, North Carolina Central University bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate as well. On January 4, 1976, Morehouse College formally dedicated John H. Wheeler Hall as the school's Social Sciences and Business Administration Building.

Biographical note and timeline authored by Dr. Brandon K. Winford.

John Hervey Wheeler Timeline

Born January 1, 1908, Kittrell College Campus
J. L. Wheeler moves his family to Atlanta, GA
John H. Wheeler begins attending Morehouse Academy.
Graduates from Morehouse Academy and enters Morehouse College.
Receives A.B. Degree in Business Adminsitration and graduates Summa Cum Laude from Morehouse College. Moves to Durham, NC to work as a bank teller at Mechanics and Farmers Bank.
Appointed as a board member of the Colored Library, later named the Stanford L. Warren Public Library
Employed by the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company as Member of its Securities and Investment Committee.
Becomes a member on the Board of Trustees at Atlanta University and Morehouse College. Marries the former Miss Selena L. Warren.
First child, Julia Wheeler, was born on April 4.
Elected as cashier of Mechanics and Farmers Bank.
Begins attending night classes at the N.C. College Law School.
Elected Vice-President of Mechanics and Farmers Bank. Becomes a member of the Durham Advisory Committee.
Graduates law school from N.C. College with his LL.B Degree. Admitted to practice law in North Carolina.
On May 18, 1949 black Durham school aged children and their parents file suit against the Durham Public School District alleging 480 that the “defendants are depriving the plaintiffs of their rights under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in that the Negro school children are being denied the equal protection of the law, on account of their race and color, by discriminating against them in the public school facilities. Wheeler argues case for Equalized Educational Facilities in Durham, NC along with attorney M. Hugh Thompson and law firm Hill, Martin and Robinson of Richmond, VA. NCC Law students file suit aimed at getting them admitted to the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, arguing that facilities there were better. Wheeler serves as a member of the suits legal counsel.
Wheeler becomes President of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Durham, NC.
Admitted to practice law in U. S. Supreme Court.
Becomes Chairman of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (1957-1978). Father J. L. Wheeler dies on March 30, 1957.
Becomes a member of the Durham Redevelopment Commission.
Becomes member of President John F. Kennedy’s committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, headed by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Holds Doctor of Humanities (L. H. D.) Honorary Degree conferred by Tuskegee Institute.
Elected President of the Southern Regional Council (1964-1969).
Serves as representative of the secretary of commerce to the International Trade Fair in Tripoli.
Wheeler is appointed by Governor Sanford to serve on the North Carolina Fund’s Board of Directors.
Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to a team of Americans visiting the Republic of Germany to review progress under the Marshall Plan.
Governor Terry Sanford names Wheeler as an at-large delegate from North Carolina to the National Democratic convention, the first black from North Carolina to be a delegate to the national convention.
Becomes president of North Carolina Low Income Housing Development Corporation.
President Johnson appoints Wheeler one of the incorporators of the National Housing Corporation authorized by the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968.
Becomes a Board member of the Soul City Foundation, Inc.
Sunday, January 4, 1976, formal dedication of John H. Wheeler Hall, Social Sciences 484 and Business Administration Building, is named in his honor.
Dies on July 6, 1978. John H. Wheeler Foundation is established.


109 Linear feet

Language of Materials



This collection is arranged into six series: 1. Personal Papers, 2. Organizations, 3. Writings by Wheeler, 4. Writings by Others, 5. Printed and Published Materials, and 6. Audio/Visual materials.

Processing Note

Special Thanks to Dr. Brandon Winford who assisted in processing the John H. Wheeler collection and conitues to help support the use of the collection.

John H. Wheeler Collection, 1897-1978
In Progress
Finding prepared by Sarah Tanner, January 2016
2016 January 1
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
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Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc. Repository


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