First of three parts

A binding truth: Phone call reveals a shocking link between former classmates

gschwab@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 15, 2014 

  • Coming Wednesday

    For the two Kirkpatricks, genealogy research reveals more about Mecklenburg County’s era of slavery on the eve of the Civil War.

  • The series

    Today: Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick and De Kirkpatrick, high school classmates at Myers Park nearly 50 years ago, reconnect and discover their shared history.

    Wednesday: The two Kirkpatricks learn more about their families’ history and an era of slavery in Mecklenburg County.

    Next Sunday: A year into their family research, De Kirkpatrick and Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick find their perspectives on race changing.

There was a message waiting for De Kirkpatrick when he returned to his Charlotte office:

“Your cousin from Oregon called.”

De laughed. Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick still has a sense of humor, he remembers thinking.

The two weren’t relatives and hadn’t been friends at Myers Park High School in 1965, but they did share the same last name. In the hallways then, they sometimes jokingly yelled, “Hey, Cuz.”

De hadn’t thought about his classmate in years, until last February when the Observer recounted how Jimmie Lee, the first black football star at a predominantly white high school in Charlotte, had become the central figure in a 1965 civil rights lawsuit. What happened his senior year would set the city on edge, draw national attention and eventually give African-Americans the opportunity to play in one of the most prestigious games in the Carolinas.

De emailed the Observer and asked how to contact Jimmie Lee, a retired educator in Portland, Ore.

“His being denied a place on the Shrine Bowl team was blatant racism, and prompted me to write about those events, in the context of the civil rights changes in Charlotte, as part of my application to college,” De’s email said. “Jimmie Lee’s story, on and off the field, probably got me, a white Southern male, into an Ivy League school.”

He signed the email: H.D. “De” Kirkpatrick.

Almost 50 years later, he wanted to say hello and thank Jimmie Lee for helping him get into college.

De was about to find out that Jimmie Lee had a story for him, too.

Jimmie Lee hardly knew De in high school. He remembered the two had shared a last name but little else.

They were born a little more than a month apart in 1948.

Jimmie Lee was born at Good Samaritan Hospital, built in the 1890s exclusively for African-Americans. It was where the Carolina Panthers’ stadium is now. De was born at Mercy Hospital, which opened in 1906 and didn’t admit black patients until the mid-1950s.

They were raised in very different parts of town, on opposite sides of Myers Park, the high-income community where they would both go to high school.

De grew up in the then blue-collar middle-class neighborhood of Dilworth. His father, Robert, a salesman for S&P Food Products, drove a truck for more than 30 years, supplying potato chips, crackers and candy to drugstores and mills. His mother, Louise, ran a catering service and a restaurant. At the Kirkwood Room on what would become Park Road, near where the family’s dairy farms had been, $3.25 would buy an all-you-can-eat meal of chicken and dumplings, country ham biscuits, and green beans cooked for 12 hours with salt pork.

De waited tables and washed dishes in the Kirkwood Room and worked summers at a nearby Gulf gas station. He saved enough money to buy a pair of Weejuns, penny loafers that were a status symbol in his junior high, Sedgefield. In his senior year, his parents bought him a 1964 Plymouth Fury convertible.

“Even though my roots were somewhat modest,” he remembers, “my roots were privileged.”

A challenging choice

Jimmie Lee grew up in Grier Town, a small black community where residents’ income was about half the Charlotte average. He was assigned to all-black Second Ward High School, known for its vocational studies.

His mother, Irma, worked as a packer for North American Van Lines and reared Jimmie Lee and his two sisters after a divorce. She was a church leader and a gospel singer who made sure her children attended Wednesday night choir practice and prayer meetings, and a full day of church on Sunday.

Education was important, she made clear. Almost half the kids in Grier Town dropped out before high school; families were determined that would change. Adults had permission to discipline Jimmie Lee and any young student caught skipping school.

When school boundaries changed in 1965, giving Jimmie Lee a choice, he left Second Ward and enrolled at Myers Park. He saw opportunity in the classroom and especially on the football field, where more college coaches would see him play. His mother encouraged him, saying he would open doors for others. If you let people get to know you, she told her son, they’ll like you.

He knew his new school would be challenging academically. Ninety percent of the students went on to college. Three years earlier, Myers Park had 16 National Merit finalists, more than the rest of Charlotte combined.

Athletically, Jimmie Lee stood out. He was a spectacular running back – a rare combination of speed, power and agility. He scored 19 touchdowns in one season, still a school record.

He made close friends with his white teammates, especially star quarterback Neb Hayden. He sought connections by singing in the choir and glee club and playing small roles in “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!”

But Jimmie Lee struggled in the classroom. His SAT scores didn’t meet the minimum requirements of the Atlantic Coast Conference, so he couldn’t attend his college of choice, Wake Forest.

He would accept a scholarship at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., one of the top football schools in the country.

De, meanwhile, was headed for the school he had always wanted to attend, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Then, Jimmie Lee changed De’s life for the first time.

Older brother’s influence

In 1965, his senior year, De was ready for Chapel Hill. UNC had accepted him; he had chosen a roommate and a dorm.

He wanted to enjoy the rest of his high school days. He had helped start the school’s first soccer team, competed on the school’s tennis team, was in the Key Club, a leadership service group, and excelled in Latin.

Then, his older brother encouraged him to apply to Ivy League schools. De remembers Robert, nine years older, as a “romantic poet” who attended Harvard for his master’s and doctorate degrees in English, and who gave De an illustrated version of “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey” as a birthday present when De was still in grade school.

De remembers that his counselor was skeptical when he asked that his transcripts be sent to Dartmouth and Harvard. De had made As and Bs but didn’t stand out among the school’s academic elite. He wasn’t among the 15 seniors who were National Merit semifinalists.

He needed to write an admissions essay. Robert told him to choose a topic that would get attention.

Lawsuit, then bombings

It was a violent year in race relations across America. In Selma, Ala., police used tear gas, clubs and whips against a crowd marching for voting rights led by Martin Luther King Jr. That summer, race riots left 34 dead and thousands injured in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

In Charlotte, racial tension rose at the passionate intersection of football and race when Jimmie Lee was not picked for the Shrine Bowl, an all-star football game between North Carolina and South Carolina. No black player had been selected in the game’s 28 years.

Attorney Julius Chambers sued to stop the game.

On Friday, Nov. 19, 1965, a judge ruled that the Shrine Bowl could be played in December as scheduled, but that it must be integrated going forward.

Then, at 2 a.m. the following Monday morning, bombs went off at the homes of four Charlotte civil rights leaders, including Chambers. No one was hurt, and no arrests were ever made. But Charlotte’s reputation as a racially progressive city was challenged in The New York Times and in other national reports.

Myers Park had one more football game to win to finish a perfect 11-0 season, and that was the team’s focus. Jimmie Lee had scored seven touchdowns over the past three games, prompting coach Gus Purcell to call him, “the greatest I have ever seen.” The players didn’t talk about the bombings or the lawsuit. But De, who had cheered Jimmie Lee from the stands, sensed the drama would make a strong college essay.

He wrote about the injustices Jimmie Lee faced and the impact he had. He wrote that the bombings aimed at civil rights leaders had united the city’s white and black communities.

“Though Jimmie Lee and I humorously refer to ourselves as cousins (and humor is needed in solving the problems of Southern integration), a common need for brotherhood on a much larger scale is apparent,” De wrote.

The essay got De an interview in Cambridge, where he remembers they mostly wanted to talk about civil rights in the South.

The last time De saw Jimmie Lee was at graduation in 1966. He had wondered what happened to him. The Observer’s stories last year filled in parts of the nearly 50-year gap.

A shocking conversation

De got the message to contact his “cousin” in Oregon last year on Feb. 27 and called Jimmie Lee that afternoon.

Both 64, the two talked about high school days and where life had taken them: De became a forensic psychologist who also had written and published two mystery novels; Jimmie Lee was a retired educator working part time at a juvenile detention center and teaching physical education at a community college.

Then De said: I want to thank you for getting me into Harvard.

Jimmie Lee thought it was a joke, then realized De was serious as he explained the essay he wrote.

“I never would have known anyone at the time would have written anything about what I was going through, or have been aware enough,” Jimmie Lee said.

Jimmie Lee also had a question for De that he was finding difficult to ask, perhaps because of what the answer might reveal. He had noticed that De went by H.D. Kirkpatrick in his professional signature.

Finally, he took a breath, then asked: “I’ve always known you as De. What does the H in H.D. stand for?”

“It’s Hugh.”

There was a long pause.

“I know a lot about your family,” Jimmie Lee said.

“I believe your great-great-grandfather owned my great-great-great-grandfather.”

Hidden records

De at first was quiet, struggling to find words. He thought he knew his family history, how his ancestors emigrated from Scotland to North Carolina and settled in Mecklenburg County in the mid-1700s.

Slave owners? How did you figure that out? he recalls asking.

For years, Jimmie Lee had researched his family history. He found his great-great-grandfather, Sam Kirkpatrick, but records stopped there. Names of slaves weren’t collected in the census before the Civil War. That creates obstacles for African-American families researching their genealogy.

Jimmie Lee was inspired to look harder after his mother, Irma, died on New Year’s Eve 2002. Her influence on him was never far from his thoughts. In 2003, he returned to Myers Park for one year as an assistant principal. He visited places he had played as a child, and he thought again of family. He posted an Internet query on a Charlotte genealogy website asking for information.

Three years later, when Jimmie Lee had moved back to Portland, Jane Starnes of Charlotte contacted him with an answer. She was researching the history of Sharon Presbyterian Church for its 175th anniversary and found in its records from the 1850s and 1860s a baptism of Sam Robert, son of Sam, servant of H. Kirkpatrick.

Jimmie Lee told De that he learned that H stood for Hugh, and had been searching for heirs of the man who had owned his ancestor.

De cycled through a wave of emotions as he thought of his own history.

Now, nothing made sense.

Working through issues

De grew up in the 1960s in Charlotte, a segregated Southern city.

His family was prejudiced, he says. He grew up around people, including his father, who told offensive jokes and used racist language, he recalls.

One fall, when De was home from Harvard watching a football game on television, his father made a crude joke when a black player was tackled hard. De says he turned off the television and asked his father to never again make such a remark in front of him, and that his father didn’t.

De shared rides home at Christmas and at the end of the year with a black Harvard classmate, James Coleman Jr., who had graduated at the top of his class at Charlotte’s Second Ward High, the all-black school Jimmie Lee left for Myers Park.

“I had never met a white person my age in Charlotte,” says Coleman, now co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke Law School. “De was the first guy, and we became friends that year.”

As an upperclassman at Harvard, De protested the Vietnam War. He was disappointed that his parents voted for George Wallace in 1968. The longtime Alabama governor tried to block black students from integrating white schools in his state.

Years later, De went to the San Francisco Bay area to pursue his doctorate in psychology and post-doctoral training in forensic psychology. He was in analysis for more than a decade as part of his own education, he says. He worked through family issues, including the racism he grew up around. “I would fly home, take my mom to the mountains, and we’d have two-and-a-half-day talks,” he says.

So De was accustomed to confronting the past. But this had caught him so off guard.

When he got off the phone with Jimmie Lee, De called to tell his wife, Katie Holliday, who had also been in their Myers Park class. Then, De says, he couldn’t stop thinking, or talking, about what he’d learned. He’d share it with anyone who would listen.

There were two general reactions, De remembers: “Some people said, ‘That’s fascinating.’ ” Others, assuming De was upset about the possibility of black family members, said, “That’s too bad.”

The searching begins

De had inherited a box marked “genealogy” when his brother had died nine years earlier.

Now, he rummaged through it at his lake house and found family records. His mother had saved obituaries. He found a draft of his own Harvard essay and sent it to Jimmie Lee.

For weeks, they traded emails almost every other day. Together, they were learning, then discussing what they learned in phone calls that often lasted more than an hour. They agreed they wanted to find the truth about their shared past, wherever it led.

De searched the Internet after his secretary told him about ancestry.com. He recorded information and dates on his family, then added context on concurrent world events. He focused on Europe, particularly Scotland and Ireland, and on the American South.

He began to discover new pieces of family history, and new implications for what he did know. He thought he came from a line of dairy farmers.

“That’s true, but those dairy farmers were from a long line of slave owners,” De says. “Suddenly, I’m learning that Mecklenburg County had plantations. I didn’t know that.

“Some of the Mecklenburg County plantations were owned by my family. I didn’t know that. What did they grow? Cotton? ... I didn’t know.”

De got another shock when he saw the 1860 census: On the eve of the Civil War, his great-great-grandfather had owned 32 slaves on the Kirkpatrick Plantation.

It was a Mecklenburg County that De Kirkpatrick never knew existed, where 1 in 3 people was a slave.

Researcher Maria David contributed to this story.

Schwab: 704-358-5120

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