Two professionals dwell within the tall, imposing container well known in this town as Steve Crump.
There is the veteran reporter at WBTV (Channel 3) whose connections are the envy of many who practice the news trade.
Then there is the documentarian who has over the past two decades created more than 20 programs for public television related to black history and culture in the Carolinas and beyond.
On Monday, it is the latter Crump who will receive the city of Charlotte’s Martin Luther King Jr. Medallion, which honors a Charlottean who has worked to promote racial equality and social justice.
His films – which have won three regional Emmys – have covered topics ranging from King’s last days to lunch counter sit-ins to the story of Dorothy Counts, who integrated Charlotte schools. Over the years, he has interviewed Desmond Tutu, Pete Seeger and Angelina Jolie.
Not bad for a kid from Kentucky, a great-great-grandson of slaves who barely knew his father and once was fired from a TV job.
But covering North Carolina troops on a relief mission to Somalia in 1993 so broadened his worldview that he pursued a path as an independent filmmaker.
Crump, 55, grew up in Louisville’s industrial Smoketown district. His house at 946 S. Preston St. was two blocks from the Louisville Slugger factory and three streets over from the gym where Muhammad Ali learned to box.
There, Crump developed his narrative skills at the dinner table. “Three generations lived in our house at any one time,” he says. “They were skilled storytellers.”
Crump’s ancestors were slaves near Bardstown, in Kentucky’s hilly bourbon belt. At the end of the Civil War, Crump’s great-great-grandfather was a distillery “proofer,” a chemist who measured the potency of liquor. His salary was 50 cents a day and a gallon of whiskey a week.
His grandmother was Ethel Dawson, who passed on stories from her grandparents about the agrarian life.
“I didn’t sense a great deal of bitterness,” Crump says.
Dawson, who never finished high school, was a widow who raised three children during the Great Depression.
She worked as a domestic employee, never took a penny of public assistance and saw to it that each of her three children went to college. “She saw the vision of what the future could hold for her children,” Crump says.
Racing a part of family life
Dawson was influential in teaching Crump a skill he has never quit practicing. On Saturdays, she would pack a picnic basket and take the family by bus to the twin spires of Churchill Downs for horse racing.
“She was the one who taught me how to place a wager at the two-dollar window.”
Crump says the newspaper of choice in his neighborhood was the Daily Racing Form. Every serious fan of the sport of kings has a handicapping strategy. Crump leans toward bloodlines, and avoids a flutter on any horse that goes kicking into the gate.
His love of the sport led to his 2001 documentary, “Forgotten at the Finish Line,” the largely unknown story of African-American jockeys, such as Isaac Murphy, three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. “Forgotten at the Finish Line” was one of nine Crump documentaries to go into national distribution to PBS stations.
Horses were as much a part of his childhood as his Catholic upbringing. He attended parochial school for 12 years. Meatless Fridays were rigorously observed; Crump remembers his mother, a therapeutic dietitian, heading out just before midnight on Fridays for a White Castle hamburger.
A distant father
Crump’s parents divorced by the time he was 3. His father was a decorated Korean War veteran who lost his way afterward, a man plagued by many demons, Crump says. Since age 10, he’s only seen his father twice.
Their last encounter was in 1984, about eight months after his mother died, when Crump went to a veterans hospital near Asheville looking for him. He was directed to a man wearing a striped, rainbow-colored nightshirt in the recreation room.
“Are you Jimmie Crump?” he asked. “I’m your son, Steve.”
They talked for two hours, mostly chit-chat.
Four years later, Crump was at Detroit’s Hutzel Women’s Hospital doing a story about maternity wards when his pager went off. “I was looking at babies when I got word my father had died in Asheville, alone in a homeless shelter.”
Sad news, but not entirely unexpected.
Crump went back to the newsroom and finished his story.
“Forgiveness is not easy for me,” he says. “I found it in my heart to forgive him for the pain he caused.”
A life of reporting
After graduating from Eastern Kentucky University in 1980 (“My transcript reads like a bad credit report”), he took a job at a Savannah, Ga., TV station. He volunteered to cover Ku Klux Klan rallies, where he was unwelcome and sometimes ejected.
Next, he landed work in Orlando, Fla., which ended badly. “I was fired because I couldn’t write, or so they said. I probably needed more experience going into that situation.”
After a few months of collecting unemployment, he went to a station in Lexington, Ky., and in 1984 was hired at WBTV. After three years, he was courted by bigger stations elsewhere.
“I was half my size and had a head full of hair,” Crump says.
He took a job in Detroit, one of the nation’s best news towns, rocking with sports, corruption and celebrity. One day, he looked up to see Aretha Franklin walking through the newsroom. He sometimes saw Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca at Mass.
After three years, WBTV lured him back in 1989.
Former Channel 3 reporter David Rhew was Crump’s newsroom neighbor for years. In contrast to the slow-paced documentary researcher, Rhew says, Crump relished a story breaking just before airtime.
“Steve was always making sure he was well prepared, including making sure he was well fed,” Rhew says. “He certainly had culinary appeal in the newsroom. If he had chicken from that Texaco down on Wilkinson Boulevard once, he had it a thousand times.”
Anchor Molly Grantham remembers the time she got a call from an elected official attacking her for a story. When she tried to reply, he hung up.
“Without one second of hesitation, Crump – who has everyone’s phone number – picked up his phone and called the guy. Instantly. Crump told him, diplomatically but firmly, not to treat me that way. The guy apologized.
“For that reason, I call him Crumpy. Because he stands up – almost like a protector of sorts – when he feels a wrong is being committed.”
In 1993, WBTV sent Crump to Somalia to cover relief missions. It was a transformative trip that would lead to four documentaries for WTVI (PBS Charlotte, Channel 42) on Africa, including “Souls of Passage” in 1996 about the continent’s slave coast and connections to the Carolinas.
“I remember being in the slave dungeons. It’s a profound experience when you touch the walls and see the ‘Portal of No Return’ and through it you see the ocean out there.”
He had caught the documentary bug. After the Africa pieces, he went on to explore issues as diverse as bebop music and black World War II heroes.
They have been made on his own time and a shoestring budget.
“I haven’t made any money,” Crump says. “It’s a labor of insanity.”
Aside from former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who financed on his own initiative a community retrospective on Crump’s body of documentary work at the Light Factory six years ago, no prominent African-American businesses in Charlotte that Crump has approached for underwriting have provided financial support. It rankles him.
“It’s great people like the stories you tell, but it’s disappointing some of the businesses and individuals who have said no; they weren’t interested in helping.”
Jeffrey Leak, who specializes in African studies at UNC Charlotte, knows of no one else doing black history documentaries in the South.
“It’s a mainstay for me in terms of cataloging black history that people don’t know about,” Leak says. “He’ll take something we think we know a lot about and reveal that we only know the surface. He goes behind what the icon is.”
Leak cites Crump’s documentary on Muhammad Ali that told the story of the champion’s early years. And “Before Rosa,” the 2004 program about Sarah Mae Flemming, who was kicked off a bus in Columbia when she wouldn’t sit in the back, 17 months before Rosa Parks defied the rules in Montgomery, Ala. Flemming’s case led to a court ruling that segregated seating on Columbia buses was unconstitutional.
Race an underlying theme
In various ways, Crump’s documentaries deal with race relations. “How can you not deal with race?” he says.
He knew relatives who were once relegated to the back of the bus. His mother and her siblings had to pass the white Catholic high school to reach their school, Colored Catholic High. He would ride the No. 25 Oak Street bus to his high school, Louisville Trinity, where he was one of three African-Americans in his class.
“I’d ride the bus with domestics who were cleaning the homes of some of my classmates. I’d hear them talking and knew things about both sides of the households,” Crump says.
“It’s not so much I have an ax to grind than it is to give people their say, people who influenced American history. A lot of people from those eras didn’t have the opportunity to have their say.
“Some of these stories have been the vehicle to share their experiences before they died. It’s gratifying to me that I had a chance to meet and talk to them, and that they trusted me with their stories.”