Orange County

Charlotte school ties bind new friends, revive buried slave past

De Kirkpatrick, left, and Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, right, speak during a forum at United Church of Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017.
De Kirkpatrick, left, and Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, right, speak during a forum at United Church of Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017. newsobserver.com

Talking about race requires trust and a willingness to listen, Jimmie Lee and De Kirkpatrick said after sharing their own history of family and slavery Sunday at United Church of Chapel Hill.

“It doesn’t take long to share yourself, and then you have the opportunity to practice it as you meet people and you (learn) some facts. No one’s perfect on these issues,” Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick said.

United Church member Phil Wilson, who attended high school with the Kirkpatricks, suggested their story for the church’s Sunday Adult Forum, an open talk about current issues held throughout the year.

The Kirkpatricks – Jimmie Lee is black, De is white – grew up in Charlotte, sharing a name and graduating in 1966 from Myers Park High School. De was from a blue-collar family in a middle-class neighborhood; Jimmie Lee from a high-poverty, segregated community of black businesses, churches and schools.

They were acquaintances when Jimmie Lee transferred in his senior year from all-black Second Ward High School, becoming one of only a few black students at Myers Park High School. De said he remembers Jimmie Lee as a “rock star” football player who would yell, “Hey, cuz,” at him in the hallway.

Fifty years later, they are friends delving into family history together.

Civil rights years

Jimmie Lee made the move to Myers Park in 1965, in the hope that college recruiters would be more likely to notice his football skills at a white school. He knew some in his home community might see the move as selling out. He also knew how highly they valued education, he said.

As the Mustangs’ running back, he was a target amid the heightened tensions, protests and violence of the civil rights years. White fans hurled insults and held racist signs at his games; opposing players punched, spit and called him names.

But Jimmie Lee’s athleticism and attitude won over his teammates, who became friends. They visited one another’s homes, watching football and going to parties and restaurants. He was the first black player on the Charlotte Observer all-county team, helping the Mustangs to an 11-0 season and state championship.

Then Jimmie Lee was nominated but not picked for the annual Shrine Bowl contest between the best North Carolina and South Carolina players. The decision inspired a racial equity lawsuit and protest marches. The homes of four civil rights leaders involved in the case were firebombed.

The Shrine Bowl decision “blew my mind,” De Kirkpatrick said. “It was obvious that it was racial discrimination.”

Jimmie Lee attended Purdue University on a scholarship but dropped out in 1969 and joined Vietnam War protesters in California. A football injury kept him out of the war. He later settled in Portland, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oregon State, and working as a teacher, coach and assistant principal.

De was planning to attend UNC Chapel Hill, but his brother urged him to apply to Harvard. The Charlotte psychologist still credits his admissions essay – about the Shrine Bowl decision and the firebombings – for getting him into the Ivy League school.

Family connections

The men lost touch until the Charlotte Observer revisited Jimmie Lee’s story in a three-part 2013 series, prompting De to ask how he could reach Jimmie Lee. He later got a message at work that his “cousin from Oregon” had called, and they talked for two hours, De said. Jimmie Lee asked about the “H” in his initials “H.D.” It stood for “Hugh,” De told him, to which Jimmie Lee responded, “I know a lot about your family.”

We began a conversation, a relationship, that has been life-altering.

De Kirkpatrick

Jimmie Lee shared how De’s great-great-grandfather, also Hugh Kirkpatrick, had owned his great-great-grandfather, a slave named Sam.

“We began a conversation, a relationship, that has been life-altering, because by rights, Jimmie could have been pretty angry at me,” De said, “but he talked with me with grace, kindness, empathy, openness, understanding, and it created for me a kind of momentum to go with him on a journey to look at our families.”

They learned that over a third of Mecklenburg County’s population in 1860 were slaves. De said his great-great-grandfather owned 32 slaves and his family had at least seven plantations.

Jimmie Lee’s family story, like many others, was not recorded before the Civil War, because slaves were property and family members were bought and sold. His great-grandmother was born in 1891 to former slaves, he said, and she and her friends sometimes spoke about those days but never the hardships.

“Now that I’m doing research on the family, I’m thinking, gosh, I wish I had asked more questions. I wish someone would have recorded these things,” he said.

A recent DNA analysis found De is mostly Scots-Irish, he said. Jimmie Lee is West African but with “a wee bit of Irish in him.”

Unmarked graves

Jimmie Lee’s family was worried at first that he was digging into a painful past, he said, but it’s different now, because they see the publicity as a way to keep the family and its traditions alive.

“This is nice in that it certainly motivated and made our family proud that I’m doing this research and we’re trying to make these connections,” he said.

De said his family’s response was mixed, but he was struck most deeply by a visit to Sardis Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Charlotte.

Across the cemetery he saw Jimmie Lee kneeling, cleaning leaves from De’s family headstones. They think Jimmie Lee’s relatives are in unmarked graves outside the cemetery fence.

“That was almost more than I could bear,” De said. “Over at the side were his ancestors with their rocks, maybe. I couldn’t go over and do the same for him he was doing for me.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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