TAMPA — Perry C. Harvey Jr., a top union official on Tampa's docks and the first African-American elected to the Tampa City Council, died Wednesday. He was 81.
Known for his political boldness, he once was described as a headline waiting to happen.
"There's probably never been a more fierce advocate for the African-American community," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who had known Mr. Harvey since the mid 1980s.
"He was vocal. He was animated. He was relentless. And he never, ever lost sight of the fact that he represented those who had never had a fair playing field," Buckhorn said.
Mr. Harvey served on the City Council 12 years, from 1983 to 1995, except for five months in 1991 after being suspended by the governor. That July, he was indicted on charges that he stole about $225,000 from the longshoreman's union he led. But he was reinstated and returned to office triumphantly after a federal jury acquitted him.
On the council, Mr. Harvey had a reputation for advocating on behalf of minority-owned businesses before there were many programs to help them win government contracts.
"He was well-known for wanting 'my piece of the pie' for the black community," said the Rev. Thomas Scott, who chaired the City Council and Hillsborough County Commission. "That was his famous line."
Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said that with Mr. Harvey, "everything wasn't always about race, but if there was any racial overtone that he saw, he called you on it real fast."
"It was about bettering his district, which would better his community," she said.
During civil disturbances in 1987, Mr. Harvey, whose family owned the College Hill Pharmacy, was ready to help calm a polarized city, she said.
"He clearly understood, not just from his work in the union, what people went through, but he understood what their kids went through and saw them hanging out there on the corners," Freedman said. That's why he pushed for more playgrounds and black police officers.
Mr. Harvey had "a unique ability to carve out" certain issues that his colleagues would defer to him, civil rights lawyer Warren Dawson said.
One of those was persuading colleagues to sell a piece of city-owned land to the Hillsborough County School Board for the construction of Blake High School.
Mr. Harvey was part of a tradition that linked his family, the International Longshoremen's Association and civil rights in Tampa. That tradition can be traced to November 1961, when 4,200 people welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Tampa's National Guard Armory.
The civil rights leader's speech was delayed while police swept the building after a bomb scare.
But Mr. Harvey's father, who was president of Local 1402 of the ILA, and a group of his men refused to be intimidated. His 300-pound frame planted firmly in the auditorium, Perry C. Harvey Sr. said, "We ain't going nowhere."
A few months before Perry C. Harvey Sr. died from cancer in 1972, he put his son into a new position of executive vice president of the union local. From there, Perry C. Harvey Jr. inherited the presidency.
He also inherited the role of political power broker in Tampa's black community. When white candidates wanted support, they went to the Harveys.
The younger Harvey took his family's political prestige one step further. In 1983, he ran for public office, winning a council seat.
Mr. Harvey's indictment interrupted the last of his three terms on the City Council.
With his attorney's help, he portrayed himself at his trial as a man who started working the docks as a teen, accepted the mantle of leadership from his dying father, toiled to help his union brothers and then found himself the subject of a vicious prosecution.
After his acquittal, Mr. Harvey had sharp words for the media, particularly the Tampa Bay Times, then known as the St. Petersburg Times, which he said treated him unfairly. A Times investigation in 1989 described him as a man who transformed the ILA from a brotherhood of laborers into a personal fiefdom.
"I'm back in business again," Mr. Harvey said upon his return to his council seat. "I'm going to be even more aggressive."
Perry Curtis Harvey Jr. was born in Thomasville, Ga., but largely grew up on Tampa's docks, going to work as a water boy for United Fruit Co. at 13.
In 1983, he told the Tampa Tribune he grew up with his parents, brother and five sisters in a two-bedroom frame house in Ybor City. At one point, four Harvey children were in college, and their father was earning just $50 a week, he told the Tribune.
An all-state athlete at Tampa's Middleton High School in 1946, Mr. Harvey graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1951 with a degree in biology. He spent the Korean War as a laboratory technician in an Army hospital in California.
After the war, he got a master's degree in biology from Atlanta University and returned to Tampa to teach science at Booker T. Washington Junior High School. He taught from 1956 to 1963, and then managed the local ILA's pension, welfare and vacation funds. He also was active in the civil rights movement.
In 1993, he and the late Sylvia Kimbell, then a county commissioner, shared an award from the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council.
Mr. Harvey, who died of heart failure at Kindred Hospital in Tampa, had been in poor health since 2001, when he lost his left leg to diabetes.
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Rubin Padgett said Mr. Harvey, like the late New York Yankees owner and philanthropist George Steinbrenner, quietly helped many people. Sometimes, he would go into his own pocket for help with the down payment on a house. Sometimes, he would help buy the furniture.
"He was an asset to the community even before he was elected to the City Council," Padgett said.
Information from staff writer Sue Carlton and former obituaries editor Craig Basse was used in this report.