They returned by the dozen, from cities as far as Seattle and New York, to celebrate Grier Heights, a historically black community that helped lay the foundations for their success.
Hundreds lined the streets of this southeast Charlotte neighborhood to watch a parade and then enjoy a reunion that brought together generations of people who got their start there.
James Lee, 53, a lifelong resident of this community of 3,000, said the annual event provides a shot of hope for a neighborhood besieged by too much crime and poverty.
“In our community, hope has been scuttled in a lot of different ways,” said Lee, who manages a neighborhood sandwich shop.
It wasn’t always that way, Lee said. He recalls growing up in a close-knit community where people kept an eye on their neighbors’ children, where kids learned to use their imaginations to have non-destructive fun.
The parade and reunion, he said, give young people an opportunity to see those who grew up in their neighborhood “with more than gold in their teeth and a gun in their hand.”
This year, the parade’s grand marshal was Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, a Grier Heights native who in the 1960s became the first African-American player to make the Observer’s all-star high school football team.
In 1965, Kirkpatrick became the central figure in a lawsuit that integrated the Shrine Bowl, a high school all-star football game between North Carolina and South Carolina.
“So many people who came from Grier Town had successful lives and families,” said Kirkpatrick, a semi-retired educator who now lives in Portland, Ore. “It’s kind of a pride day for Grier Heights.”
Kirkpatrick was especially proud because his mother, Irma, had also been a parade grand marshal years ago.
For event facilitator Gloria Green, this year’s event was a chance to show the rest of Charlotte the good things happening in Grier Heights.
“Do you see any pants hanging down? Do you see any fighting?” she asked, gesturing to the peaceful crowd of about 300 who were enjoying grilled food and music at a neighborhood park. “That’s what Grier Heights really is.”
Staff writer Gary Schwab contributed.
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