A local community leader and civil rights pioneer passed away this week, but Paducah residents say his legacy won't be forgotten.
The Rev. Wardell G. Harvey Sr., a longtime pastor, founder of Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church and the first black person to serve as a Paducah city commissioner, died Tuesday at the age of 88. Friends and colleagues remember him for the crucial role he played in desegregating Paducah and building understanding across racial lines.
"If there ever was a person that truly made a difference in our community, it was Rev. Harvey," J.W. Cleary, president of the Paducah chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Thursday.
"If he said 'jump,' I would say, 'Reverend, how high do you want me to go?' I really believed in him that much."
Paducah businesses had yet to fully integrate in 1962, the year that Harvey, a Boonville, Ind., native, moved to Paducah to lead Greater Harrison Street Baptist Church. Harvey had previously pastored at the New Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Evansville, Ind.
Only a year after Harvey came to town, he made waves by striding in the door of Boswell's, one of Paducah's most popular restaurants, with a co-worker. Harvey later told the Paducah Sun that just taking a seat at the restaurant brought stares, but owner Ben Boswell informed him as he left that he was welcome in the establishment. Harvey went on to do away with a segregated drinking fountain and to integrate local movie theaters, one at a time, with the cooperation of owner Jack Keiler.
Never one to shy from controversy, Harvey attended a Ku Klux Klan rally at the Cherry Civic Center in 1974. He was asked to leave, but didn't, and the meeting continued without incident, according to Sun files.
Such actions paved the way for members of the black community to make themselves heard in Paducah, former city commissioner Robert Coleman said.
"Not only as a symbol did he encourage them, but he verbally and vocally encouraged young blacks to get involved," Coleman said. Harvey campaigned in both the black and white community when he ran for city commissioner in 1968. Four commissioners were elected; Harvey finished fifth behind Bill Fellows. But Fellows died before taking office, and Mayor Robert Cherry offered Harvey the seat.
In 1969, Harvey received the most votes in the commission race, entitling him to serve as mayor pro tem. He was elected to a second full term in 1971.
Harvey received numerous awards for his civil rights activism and was named an inaugural member of the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2000. But his role, as he saw it, extended beyond the black community.
"I have always strived to help people in Paducah regardless of their race, creed or color," he said in a 1996 Paducah Sun interview.
Harvey said his political efforts went hand in hand with his work as a pastor. Under his leadership, the Harrison Street church grew from a congregation of about 60 to one that occasionally topped 500. He split with that church in 1986 to found Greater Love, where he worked alongside his wife, Christine Peterson-Harvey.
Rev. Bernice Belt, chairwoman of the Paducah Human Rights Commission, said she preached and sang from Harvey's pulpit on several occasions. She praised the pastor for the strong biblical foundation in his sermons.
"He loved his church. He believed that people should be very loyal to the church, and that the church has a responsibility to make a positive impact on the community."
But for many years, Harvey didn't believe that women should be preachers. When he changed his position, he also changed the minds of some Paducahans, Belt said.
"When his daughter (Jeanette Waters) was called to the gospel, it changed his life, and he publicly acknowledged that from the pulpit. I believe that changed the course of attitudes right here in our own community," Belt said.
Grandson Jonathan McReynolds, who pastors in Columbus, Ohio, said Harvey left "a tremendous spiritual legacy" for his family - he leaves behind three children, Jeanette Harvey of Louisville, Wardell Harvey Jr. and Dionne Jones of Memphis - and for the community at large.
"He was always an inspiration because he was a tireless giver of himself to the community," McReynolds said.
As a crusader for change, Harvey left behind some big shoes - size 10D, to be exact - for younger generations to fill. He often said there was still work to be done in terms of doing away with discrimination.
"What I would like to see is younger people step up and say, 'Hey, look here, I want to be like Rev. Harvey,'" Cleary said. "I really and truly believe that he was one of the ones ... who helped level the playing field."
Visitation for Harvey will be held from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday at New Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church, 1249 N. 12th St., and the funeral will start at 7 p.m.
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