The work by Robert Lee Humber, attorney, civic leader, connoisseur, and citizen of the world, on behalf of the North Carolina Museum of Art is legendary in the state’s political and cultural annals. The present Museum is his greatest memorial and arguably would not exist were it not for his efforts in 1947. Born in Greenville, Humber graduated from Wake Forest College and served in World War I. In 1923 he traveled to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1929 he married Lucie Berthier of Paris and practiced corporate law in that city through the 1930s. Humber represented American oil interests and invested shrewdly in company stock. In 1940, hours ahead of the Nazis, Humber and his family fled Paris, moving back to his native Pitt County.
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Mindful of the consequences of unchecked totalitarianism, Humber in 1940 set out on a personal quest on behalf of peace through world federation. Convinced that the only hope for mankind was establishment of order through a world government, he launched the Movement for World Federation. He took his appeal across the country and saw sixteen state legislatures endorse his principles.
In 1943 Humber joined the North Carolina Art Society and, four years later, in a masterful display of personal persuasion, convinced state legislators to commit a million dollars toward an art museum. He had an agreement from department store magnate Samuel Kress to match the money, the seed funds for the first state art museum in the nation, which opened in 1956. Humber, who chaired the museum trustees until his death, had cultural interests which extended to many organizations including the Literary and Historical Association, the Arts Council, Tryon Palace, and others. As a legislator he wrote the bill establishing the North Carolina Awards. In 1958 he was elected to the first of three terms in the state senate and, as chairman of the Higher Education Committee, helped shape the creation of the system of technical institutes and community colleges. Humber died in Greenville on November 10, 1970. His house in Greenville houses the Eastern Office of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 229-231—sketch by John L. Humber
C. Sylvester Green, Vignettes: Robert Lee Humber (1976)
O. K. Armstrong, “Grassroots Crusader,” Reader’s Digest (May 1946)
(Raleigh) News and Observer, February 5, 1950 (“Tar Heel of the Week”)
Noel Yancey, “Humber’s Dream,” The Spectator (Raleigh), November 29, 1978
Ola Maie Foushee, Art in North Carolina (1972)
North Carolina Museum of Art: A Brief History (1986)