Harvey Beech ’52 Never Liked Being First

When he received his swimming pool privilege card from the University, it was a mistake; Carolina asked him to return the card because only white students got pool cards. The student assigned, alphabetically, to march beside him in the graduation procession refused.

He would go back home and build a life-size replica of the Old Well, true in every detail, on a lot he owned on a busy street.

Harvey Elliott Beech ’52 (LLB) was one of the first four African-Americans to be admitted to UNC, and he was the first to walk out with a degree. He had started his law studies at North Carolina College (Now N.C. Central University) and moved to Chapel Hill after participating in the lawsuit that knocked down the door for blacks.

Beech, who became a legal and philanthropic legend and a staunch civil rights defender in more than 35 years of practicing law in Kinston and who kept his ties to Carolina strong — particularly with the General Alumni Association’s annual Black Alumni Reunion — died Aug. 7. He was 81.

He was known for speaking candidly about how white and black Kinstonians could work together to blur the color line. He sought out young people with potential, living in poverty, and connected them with educational opportunities. He was the first black chair of the Kinston Board of Education, the first black trustee of East Carolina University. He started an anonymous fund at Lenoir Memorial Hospital for children hospitalized during holidays. He gave some of the land for Lenoir Community College. Beech was many times decorated in Kinston, including the Kinston-Lenoir County Citizen of the Year award in 1981.

At Carolina, he received the William Richardson Davie Award, the highest honor given by the trustees. He holds the Distinguished Service Medal from the GAA. An alumni award and an outstanding student award in the Black Alumni Reunion are named for him. He was a member of the Board of Visitors and the law school’s alumni board.

“When I was a boy, I had in my possession a sack of marbles,” he was quoted in a booklet titled Harvey Beech Speaks. “All the marbles were a little different. Some were big and some were small. Some were smooth and some had a rougher texture. Some looked perfectly round but upon closer inspection were a little oblong in shape. Each, though, was a marble.”

Often in poor health in recent years, Beech, whose recent personal stationery read “Harvey E. Beech, Retired,” received a stream of visitors in his home, none more excitedly than former Kinston Mayor Buddy Ritch ’51. Ritch, a merchant, once recalled the time Beech was representing a man who owed him money. He was stunned when Beech turned to his client and said, “Why can’t you pay Mister Ritch. Couldn’t you make arrangements to pay him?” When they left the courtroom Ritch had a payment plan in hand.

Born in Mount Gilead, Beech was the son of a barber, and he trained to be one, too, as his father had dreamed. But he’d seen racially segregated water fountains, and the injustice of it stuck with him. He attended Morehouse College without his father’s blessing, graduating in 1944, captain of the football team and a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. While he was studying law at N.C. College, another Morehouse classmate, Floyd McKissick Sr. ’51 was testing the legality of UNC’s exclusion of blacks.

At first McKissick failed, but in October 1950, represented by Thurgood Marshall, he appealed. The UNC trustees’ executive committee in March 1951 recommended that blacks be admitted to programs that did not have equal facilities at predominantly black schools. The appeals court ruled that N.C. College wasn’t equal, and that summer McKissick, Beech, Kenneth Lee and James Lassiter became the first African-Americans to enroll. McKissick already had a law degree, and his summer of study probably was symbolic. Beech graduated the following June, and Lee followed two months later.

“I just felt like we ought to open up all the windows and doors and air it all out,” Beech said. “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.”

Beech often said he wished he didn’t have to hold the honor of being the first, and his career as a lawyer and civic leader was all about moving forward. But he did not want people to forget. He believed the Black Alumni Reunion had a responsibility to help alumni who had a difficult time confronting their memories of Carolina. When he returned to Chapel Hill in recent years – notably in a forum at the GAA about the University’s unpleasant racist past and in a speech about those days at the law school – he talked about the chancellor offering him a football ticket “but I’d have to sit behind the goal post with the other blacks. I told him if you give me a ticket I’m gonna sit where I damn want. I shouldn’t have said ‘damn.’ That got me in trouble.”

>He talked about the swimming pool pass – how the official who came to take it back said they had thought he was Brazilian when they gave it to him; and how he didn’t let them take it back – that he was going swimming if he wanted to. He talked about being taunted, about simply being ignored.

And he talked about the white editor of the Law Review stepping out of line to join him in the graduation procession after another student had left him standing alone. At the podium, Beech remembered, “Gov. Kerr Scott [’50 LLDH] said, ‘Never in my life have I seen so many intelligent people sitting in the dark. Things are changing. Get ready.’ He said it three times. I’m sure he was talking about the black boy in the class.”

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