“The book really uses the lens of John Hervey Wheeler's life to really explore the goal and objective of the civil rights movement from an economic perspective,” Winford said. “Looking at how he uses his position as a bank president to navigate his concerns about civil and economic rights.”
Winford is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Winford said his research and teaching focuses on late 19th and early 20th century United States and African American history with areas of specialization in African American business history and civil rights history.
Winford received his M.A. and B.A. from North Carolina Central University, where he was taught by Jerry Gershenhorn and Carlton Wilson, who are on the Board of Directors at the Museum of Durham History.
“In 1947, he (Wheeler) graduated from North Carolina College, as NCCU was called back then," Gershenhorn said. "He wanted to become a lawyer because he wanted to use a law degree in the struggle for civil rights, in particular improving Black educational opportunities and fighting for integration of education."
Gershenhorn said that Wheeler was the head of an organization called the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, which was an organization that fought for improved economic and educational opportunity and voting rights in Durham.
“He used all those facets as a banker, businessmen, civil rights attorney, civic leader in order to improve the economic political opportunities of African Americans,” Gershenhorn said.
Wheeler was also involved in historic court cases and served two U.S. presidents. Blue v. Durham Public School District was a case in North Carolina that dealt with the inequality in funding in segregated schools.
“He won the case, along with a number of other Black attorneys, because it was clear to the court and pretty much everyone else that Black schools were not funded on the same basis as white schools and that was a violation of the Constitution even under Plessy v. Ferguson, which was the guiding decision until the Brown decision overturned it,” Gershenhorn said.
Gershenhorn said that Wheeler served under President Kennedy on the president’s committee on equal employment opportunity and on the national housing corporation under President Johnson.
“Winford’s book chronicles the life of John Wheeler, but it also chronicles the life of business and economic development in Durham — particularly Black businesses,” Wilson said.
The book talk is a part of the museum’s "A Creative Protest: MLK Comes to Durham" exhibit because Wheeler, like Martin Luther King Jr., was an important figure in Durham, North Carolina, and fought nationally for civil rights, Gershenhorn said.
Gershenhorn said that both Wheeler and King grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Morehouse College, and that one of Wheeler’s classmates was King’s father.
“The Museum of Durham History is all about the history of the communities here in Durham," Wilson said. "Black businesses have played a major role in the evolution of the city of Durham. So to have a recent publication that chronicles the development of Black business, particularly someone like John Wheeler — who is an iconic figure in the Black community here in Durham — for the museum to host an event like this is well within its goals, its mission, its vision for providing the citizens of Durham with a complete look at its history."