First Day of the Silent Vigil, April 7, 1968. Photo from the Duke University Archives on Flickr.

Who was Oliver Harvey?

It was April 7, 1968, the third day of the largest student demonstration in the history of Duke University. An angry crowd occupied the main quad, as speaker after speaker delivered messages of outrage, grief, and protest sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One person who spoke that day was a man named Oliver Harvey. Diminutive, unassuming, in his late 50s, he was a familiar figure to many students. For Harry Boyte, then a recent graduate, Harvey had been a mentor. 

“I kept thinking to myself [that] everything King wrote about, Oliver Harvey embodies and practices,” he remembered. 

For Mark Pinsky, another student, Harvey “seemed so small and soft spoken. And we were so angry. But we wanted to be roused. Sometimes there’s a cognitive dissonance about how can someone so small and so soft spoken be such a towering character.” 

For Howard Fuller, a civil rights activist in North Carolina in the 1960s and 70s who also spoke to the crowd at Duke that day, Harvey was a pioneer: “When you study history, there’s Rosa Parks and all these people everyone knows about. But then there are people like Mr. Harvey, who played a huge role in trying to establish dignity and respect for people.”

Oliver Harvey worked for decades at Duke, but not as a professor, administrator or coach. He was a janitor. His struggle to organize Duke’s non-academic employees made him a civil rights and anti-poverty leader and a role model for many students. He was a fierce critic of Duke’s treatment of workers, especially African Americans, and a veteran antagonist of the university administration. But by pushing to create a more equitable workplace, he brought about meaningful change to Duke’s labor policies and practices.  

Oliver Harvey’s words to protesters at Duke that Monday in 1968 have been lost to history. In fact, little remains of anything he wrote or said. There is no official recognition of Harvey by Local 77, the union he founded, or any memorial honoring him on Duke’s campus. And even among those former students and activists who knew and admired him, much of his life remains a mystery. Three decades after his death, his brief Wikipedia entry begins “Oliver Harvey (1909-?).” It gets the birth year wrong, too.      

How did an African American janitor at an elite, almost all-white university in North Carolina force change and capture the imagination of students in the 1960s? We set out to answer that question by interviewing former students, digging through university archives, and searching for Harvey’s descendants in North Carolina and beyond. The portrait of Harvey that emerged was that of a solitary figure absorbed in the struggles of his times, a gentle personality who was not shy about confronting powerful people and institutions, and a student of protest and organization who became an influential teacher. And yet part of Harvey’s mystery endures, not just in the gaps of his story, but in its improbability.

Oliver Harvey, pictured in the center, was the co-founder of the Local 77 chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a labor union at Duke University. He worked first as a janitor, and then as a supervisor at Duke from 1951-1974. Photo courtesy of the Activating History for Justice at Duke project.

An Unexpected Friendship

At Duke in the late 1950s, service staff had regular contact with the all-white student body—maids made the students’ beds every day and janitors cleaned the dormitories.  In the fall of 1957, Harvey was assigned to clean the room of a student named John Strange. Harvey asked Strange one day if he could borrow his books on race and history. “He was obviously opportunistic because he happened to clean my room, saw that I was interested in similar-type issues,” Strange recounted. Harvey was “willing to approach the subject with me indirectly, but first creating a discussion about the books and what he was doing, and about whether or not I would participate in that process.”

Harvey’s initial conversation with Strange evolved into a discussion of the poor working conditions for maids and janitors at Duke. Maids earned an average of $0.85 per hour and janitors earned $0.95 per hour, far below the federal minimum wage of $1.25. Harvey proposed that Strange write an article for The Chronicle about labor issues on campus. At first, Strange recalls, none of the service staff would speak to him. He told Harvey about the impasse. “He must have been incredibly respected among the other maids and janitors because they followed his lead,” Strange recounted. Strange’s article was published in The Chronicle in 1958, and was reproduced in the local Black newspaper, The Carolina Times, under the title “Duke U Holds Maids in Peonage.” The article ignited a controversy on campus, but Strange said that it got results. “It probably led to an increase in salary for both maids and janitors.” 

There is no official recognition of Harvey by Local 77, the union he founded, or any memorial honoring him on Duke’s campus. And even among those former students and activists who knew and admired him, much of his life remains a mystery.

Strange graduated in 1960 but returned to Duke six years later as an assistant professor of political science. As a professor, he continued to be influenced by Harvey: “Ollie['s] philosophy was really the one that I was teaching about, and he was my example.” In the spring of 1969, when Strange taught a seminar on Black politics, Harvey regularly sat in on the class, which was held in Strange’s home. By that time, Harvey’s own home in Durham was also a gathering place for students, faculty, and civil rights leaders passing through town. Ben Chavis, a future leader of the NAACP, and Bayard Rustin, a legendary leader in social movements since the 1940s, were frequent visitors. Harvey’s eldest granddaughter, Sharon Bynum, now 63, recalled, “They would go back there in his little den and they would talk for hours about strategies on how to make the community better… He knew what was coming on, he knew how to talk with the Black leaders as well as the white leaders.”

Harvey’s Formative Years

Harvey’s views about racial injustice and workers’ rights were well-formed by the time he arrived at Duke in 1951, forged through years of successive low-wage jobs.  He also traced them to his early childhood in Franklinton, North Carolina, where he was born in 1906.  

“I got my main ideas, my theories and views, from my background, my father,” Harvey told Leah Wise, a Duke graduate student who conducted an oral history interview with him 1980. Wise’s interviews remain the most detailed account of his life and career. 

Harvey said his father had been adopted and raised by a progressive “white lawyer family” in Spring Hope, North Carolina and passed on values of independence, self-help, and perseverance to his son, who was the eldest of ten children. Harvey attended grade school in Franklinton, but after the local high school for Blacks was closed, he went in search of work. By 20, he was working as a bellhop and waiter in a hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts. Harvey saved money for college, but abandoned those plans to help support his father through the Great Depression.

In 1933, Harvey arrived in Durham. For a few years, he worked a temporary job at the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company, earning 40 cents an hour. In 1936, he was hired at Watts Hospital, the city’s first hospital. At Watts, he came face to face with segregation. Watts admitted only white patients. All the maids and orderlies were Black, while nurses’ aides and ward helpers were white. Black employees worked longer hours for less pay. Harvey said that “in those days I hated white people,” but he told Leah Wise that he was dedicated to serving patients. According to Harvey, one of his white patients,  James Harrington, was so grateful that he helped Harvey with a job to avoid the military draft for WWII.  

We were treated like sub-humans until we started organizing… You talk about slavery, it was absolutely so at Duke, because people almost had to beg to keep their jobs when they were the least little aggressive… I can’t explain what a terrible place it was—a plantation system…

Over the next nine years, Harvey worked a variety of jobs in Durham. During his time at a beer plant called the Krueger Bottling Company, he was deeply troubled by the segregated unions and the treatment of Black staff. Marking the beginning of his organizing efforts, Harvey led a strike at the company in 1943. To his surprise, almost all of the plant’s white workers walked out with the Black workers in support. Weeks of negotiation and collective bargaining led to improved working conditions for Black laborers at Krueger. Throughout the process, what frustrated Harvey was that “Black people in Durham didn’t think anything about their struggle for equality and integration. It didn’t mean a thing to them. See, this is a problem down through the years. You find very few people who are interested in doing anything, or knowing, fundamentally, of what they can do for themselves.” 

Coming to Duke

In 1951, at the age of 42, Harvey came to Duke to work as a janitor. His first impressions of the school were not favorable. He said later that the mistreatment and racism he’d witnessed previously paled in comparison to what he saw at Duke.  “I was very surprised that I saw things as low and as bad as they was in an institution like Duke University… It was a segregated institution,” he remembered in his interview with Leah Wise. Even decades later, he provided a searing indictment of the university in the early 1950s. At Duke, Harvey said, workers “had no voice and no job security… We were treated like sub-humans until we started organizing… You talk about slavery, it was absolutely so at Duke, because people almost had to beg to keep their jobs when they were the least little aggressive… I can’t explain what a terrible place it was—a plantation system… It couldn’t be any worse than at Duke.”

Harvey recalled that beyond low wages, non-academic employees at Duke had no holidays or sick leave. Managers abused their authority and created a culture of fear, he said. Workers were required to call students Mister and Miss, or face reprimands. Harvey hated working at Duke, but “hung on for all those years when nothing was happening because I wanted to learn.” In fact, Harvey recalled snooping on the university’s business when he was assigned to organize files in the Allen building. These files contained information on how the university operated, from management of its endowment to budgeting. He said he used the information later while planning how to organize at the university, telling Leah Wise that, “Working in these buildings, it takes me from 1962 until 1964 to know how to start about organizing Duke.”

Fixing a Broken System

In 1965, Harvey and a group of workers compiled a list of demands asking the university to end its discriminatory practices. The document  was sent to the administration, including then President Douglas Knight, with 1,458 signatures of Black and white employees. Harvey and other activists organized as the Duke  Employees Benevolent Society, but soon realized that in order to be taken seriously the group needed to affiliate with a union. Several months later, in August 1965, the workers joined the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as its Local 77 chapter. The formation of Local 77 was a watershed moment in Duke’s labor history. For the first time, union members were able to demand an impartial system of dealing with workplace complaints in an effort to increase wages, improve working conditions, and provide benefits for the majority African-American working class employees at Duke.

“He didn’t care about the spotlight; he cared about how to get it done.”

By the mid-1960s, Harvey was a magnet for students interested in civil rights and labor causes, including Harry Boyte. Inspired by Harvey’s efforts, Boyte founded Friends of Local 77, a student group that worked with the union. In an article for The Chronicle in 2018 titled, “Duke Vigil reunion: A Tribute to Oliver Harvey,” Boyte wrote “ Our teachers were really the maids and janitors.” For a wage of $1.60 per hour, a janitor was teaching students things about activism and civil rights that they could not learn in a classroom.

 The Silent Vigil and its Turbulent Aftermath

During the 1968 Silent Vigil at Duke in response to King’s assasination, Harvey was at the center of the protests. Duke students issued a series of demands to President Knight. Among them was a wage increase for non-academic workers to the federal minimum wage of $1.60, and an agreement to collective bargaining for non-academic workers. The Vigil, which lasted five days, quickly evolved into a support movement for Local 77, which had long been fighting for collective bargaining rights. When the university did not respond to the demands or Local 77’s requests for higher wages, workers organized a strike. Duke janitors, maids, and Local 77 members joined and set up picket lines across campus. 

The funeral program for Oliver Harvey, who died in 1987. His legacy at Duke University has been unrecognized, though some Duke alumni and fellow organizers are making new efforts to honor his memory on campus. Photo courtesy of the Activating History for Justice at Duke project.

After 13 days, the administration announced it would raise the minimum to $1.60 but did not agree to collective bargaining or union recognition. Instead, it proposed the formation of an Employees Council, a union for service workers that consisted of two divisions: technical and clerical, and maintenance and service. However, once the council was formed, most of the white male maintenance workers asked to be separated from the Black workers, and the university complied. Harvey believed that Duke’s intention was to cause friction: “When they set up the Council they set up the division… It would divide us. Duke’s main purpose was to kill union interest.”

After months of negotiation, much of which was led by Harvey, Local 77 won in January of 1972 and became the bargaining unit for over 700 service workers. 

While many doubted the fight for workers rights would bring victory, Harvey never wavered. Pinsky noted, “[Harvey] had this political consciousness...like he never doubted that they would win at a time that I doubted they would win… He knew in his heart he would win. Because if he didn’t win, the people behind him wouldn’t win.”

The union conflict was not without casualties. Division and ill will among workers continued to stew, some of which was directed at Harvey. He was blamed for lost jobs. Harvey knew his influence was waning, and with his health in decline, he decided to take the job of supervisor that Duke had been pushing on him for many years. He finally stepped down and retired from Duke in 1974.

Remembering a Forgotten Figure

Oliver Harvey died in Durham in 1987 at the age of 81. While his memory lives on for some of those he touched, he is largely a forgotten figure at Duke. Even among the employees of Local 77, the union he organized, few employees know who he is, according to former president Charles Gooch. “Oliver Harvey was great, but I'm so disappointed that Local 77, which he founded, not giving him homage,” Gooch said. “I never heard his name since I've been there.”

Some people are trying to fix that. In February 2019, Fuller proposed raising a monument to Harvey. He described how he imagines the  memorial: “I would start off with some words like courage, justice, humanity. To a certain extent, the fight to be recognized was about being treated as human beings, that there was a courage that it took to demand that justice. And so those words or concepts would frame how I would try and put something together.”

Bynum offered other thoughts on the commemoration of her grandfather. She remembers him as “a strong, silent [man]…He didn’t care about the spotlight; he cared about how to get it done.” She said: “I think it would be fitting if there was some type of library or a section, or something for history of his part of the life of Duke. Statues are fine, but I think he would rather have someone reading about the history and where we came from. Because if we forget the history, we're going to repeat the history.”

  • About

    Alicia Sun is a senior at Duke University, where she is majoring in Public Policy.

    About

    Isabella Arbelaez is a high school English as a Second Language teacher currently living in Boston, MA. After graduating from Duke University in 2015 with a major in Global Literature and certificate in Human Rights, she accepted her role at Phoenix Charter Academy, through Teach for America.