(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Distinguished Service Medal Citation
Harvey Elliott Beech ’52
With enthusiasm to match his determination to do right by people, Harvey Beech always brightens up a room. If it’s a courtroom and you’re on the other side of it, there’s a good chance the light will blind you. Buddy Ritch ’51, the prominent merchant and former mayor of Kinston, remembers the day his heart sank when he saw that Harvey was representing a customer who owed him money. Naturally he expected the skilled lawyer to take whatever tack he thought would win for his client.
To his amazement, Harvey turned to the man and asked him, “Why can’t you pay Mister Ritch? Couldn’t you make arrangements to pay him?” When they left the room the store owner had a payment plan in hand, and he had some insight into a man who, long before he took the bar exam, had learned the importance of standing up for what is right.
Almost always, the remarkable story of Harvey’s work begins with his well-known first – the first African-American graduate of The University of North Carolina. You should know how sad it makes him, to this day 50 years after, that another person much older than he couldn’t have that honor.
His father was a barber in Kinston, and he wanted Harvey to join him. Harvey started down the path, but something that had bothered him as a child – something about two separate public water fountains in his home town – had helped determine where he was headed. Even in the seemingly unjust world of racial segregation, justice was not something others could use up; there was an inexhaustible supply available to anyone who could, and would, work hard enough for it.
Harvey graduated from Morehouse College in 1944, where he was captain of the football team and a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. Five years later he enrolled in the law school at North Carolina College, now North Carolina Central University. As Harvey studied, another Morehouse classmate of his, Floyd McKissick Sr. ’51, was testing the water for black graduate students in Chapel Hill. The water was decidedly cold, but prominent civil rights lawyers urged McKissick and others to force a Southern public university to justify exclusionist policies in court.
It couldn’t, and the door opened in the summer of 1951 for McKissick, Harvey Beech, Kenneth Lee ’52, and James Lassiter ’55.
Harvey was not welcome in Steele dorm. He was not welcome in the dining hall. The University gave him a pool privilege card, then tried to take it back from him because he wasn’t white. When the law students marched two-by-two to their graduation, the white student who was paired with him would not walk with him. Even after he passed the exam, an examiner for the state bar in Kinston seemed determined to keep him from practicing there.
For so many of us, college was the time of our lives. For Harvey Beech, who was making A’s and B’s at N.C. College and could have launched his practice from there, it was a mission. He said, “I just felt like we ought to open up all the windows and doors and air it all out. If I hadn’t, some other child would have had to. Something had to be done – it wasn’t pleasant. We won a war for something that had been denied to other black boys.”
Harvey practiced law in Kinston for more than 35 years. He did well for himself and for people who needed help. He was the first black chair of the Kinston Board of Education and the first black trustee of East Carolina University. He gave some of the land for Lenoir Community College. He established a scholarship endowment at this University.
If he had done nothing else, he would be here today as the soul and inspiration behind the phenomenally successful, 21 year-old Black Alumni Reunion. Consider the challenge of that job – rallying many people who have a difficult time confronting their memories of Chapel Hill.
Because of people such as Harvey Beech, more and more often when we speak of accomplishment and achievement, an African-American is not called “the first black,” but simply “the first.”
As mayor, Buddy Ritch saw to it that Harvey was honored for his tireless efforts to bridge racial differences and improve life for people of color in Kinston. The two of them are working together to develop a computer education center for underprivileged children and adults in the building that housed Harvey’s law office. On the corner beside it, Harvey built a life-size model of the Old Well, down to the last detail.
Everyone who loves Carolina should go there and take a drink.