The story so far: In February 2013, De Kirkpatrick and Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, classmates at Myers Park High School, reconnected nearly 50 years after their graduation. In their catch-up phone call, Jimmie Lee asked De what the H in his initials H.D. stood for. De said Hugh. That’s when both men learned that De’s great-great-grandfather, also named Hugh, owned Jimmie Lee’s great-great-great-grandfather, a slave named Sam. Together, they began examining their families and the county where they grew up, where 1 in 3 people were slaves in 1860.
In early January, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick and De Kirkpatrick scraped away leaves and dirt from the edges of stone slabs to look for clues at Sardis Presbyterian Church Cemetery.
For a year, the past has kept calling to them. The discovery of a shared family history has expanded both of their personal narratives back a full century before they first met. Instead of beginning in 1965 when they were seniors together at Myers Park High, their history traces to 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, when De’s ancestors owned Jimmie Lee’s ancestors.
The two men, both 65, walked the Sardis burial grounds that hold De’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Kirkpatrick, a church founder in 1790. De watched Jimmie Lee, bent over, searching for graves of white Kirkpatricks.
There are no black Kirkpatricks to be found, even though they might be buried here. A slave burial ground is on the property, but in the woods outside the iron fence, where no markers have names.
“The wind howled, and the sky darkened, heralding a big rainstorm,” De later wrote about that Saturday morning in January. “I stood at the edge of that fence and stared into those woods, imagining their history, imagining their burials as my family’s slaves. Profound neglect was their headstone. It broke my heart.”
De’s family history is illustrated on engraved headstones as well as in detailed records about births, deaths and acquisitions from the mid-1700s.
Jimmie Lee can’t trace his family before the Civil War. Census records didn’t include names of slaves.
He now knows he has a great-great-great-grandfather named Sam, who died in 1866. But this Sam is a mystery. He and a slave named Caroline are listed as parents of his great-great-grandfather, also named Sam. Were they a couple? Did they jump the broom, a slave marriage tradition? Or was Sam a slave who was bred with Caroline and other slaves to produce strong field workers?
Where did Sam come from? And where is he buried?
Jimmie Lee wants to answer these questions and is utilizing records of the white Kirkpatricks through De. Together they are in a rare place, one where a black man and a white man talk for an entire year about topics most of us avoid: inequity, race and slavery.
The two worlds of Jimmie Lee
Jimmie Lee’s exploration of race spans his lifetime. Growing up in Grier Town in the 1950s, he learned about his heritage from his grandparents’ stories about slaves in his family.
He knew relatives who were sons and daughters of slaves and who had worked as sharecroppers in the Sharon area of Charlotte, near where SouthPark is today.
“But slavery was a touchy subject,” Jimmie Lee says, and not often discussed. “For older people, it was either so painful, or something they didn’t want as part of their legacy.”
But for De, this conversation is all new. He never imagined at 65 that he would be this deep into a discussion with a black man about slavery. Now he can’t stop asking questions.
He and Jimmie Lee share facts and theories through emails and long telephone conversations.
Until a year ago, De had no idea his great-great-grandfather, Hugh Kirkpatrick, owned 32 slaves in 1860. He had no idea Mecklenburg County had plantations.
“I never had a discussion with anybody about slavery in Mecklenburg County,” De says. He remembers that when his relatives were gathered and someone brought up the Civil War, it was mostly in pride about having family members fight for the South. “There was no discussion that ever led me to think that these farms I walked and played in as a child had been plantations.”
Harry Watson, professor of North Carolina and Southern history at UNC Chapel Hill, says there is a “profound amnesia” about slavery.
“Slavery is treated as something remote and disconnected from the bulk of the American past, a regrettable divergence from the American norm of democracy and fairness. In fact, slavery was at the very core of American economic development and political life for as long as it existed.
“This amnesia is what makes it possible for Americans to be surprised that they are still using public buildings built by slaves – such as the U.S. and N.C. capitols, and most of the other public buildings surviving in the South from the antebellum era, including the UNC campus. Or to be surprised that they are personally descended from slaveholders. In fact, there were hundreds of thousands of slaveholders and they have millions and millions of descendants.”
The passions slavery evokes
When De first found out a year ago that his ancestor owned Jimmie Lee’s ancestor, he was ashamed and saddened. And then angry.
Jimmie Lee studied slavery for decades, and he knows the common reactions: White guilt. Black anger and self-hate.
The cruelty in slavery is shocking. Whippings, rapes and lynchings – how could any human treat another so horribly?
But Jimmie Lee had seen anger destroy too many older men in Grier Town in the 1950s and ’60s. They were angry at how little their jobs paid, or angry they didn’t have jobs at all. They began to hate themselves. Some suffered depression. Others became alcoholics.
His mother, Irma, encouraged him to break through boundaries, so Jimmie Lee chose a white high school, Myers Park. As a black football star in a league of white players, he was spit on by opponents, punched while trapped at the bottom of the pile and called racial slurs. He knew if he fought back he would hurt his team. So he walked back to the huddle and ran past or over his opponents. Then, and now, he was determined anger wouldn’t get in his way.
He was 17 the day he learned he didn’t make the Shrine Bowl in 1965. He told reporters then that he thought the coaches picked the best players they could, and that he was proud of his teammates who were chosen. Whites and blacks acknowledged his grace in newspaper stories.
When lawyers sued the Shrine Bowl, demanding its racial integration the same year, he hoped he would never be the first or only at anything again. But often, as an educator, he’s been the only African-American in the room. And often, he’s worked on diversity issues.
De and Jimmie Lee didn’t know each other well in high school. They often jokingly called each other “Cuz” in the hall because of their last names. But De witnessed Jimmie Lee’s challenges as he watched him play football. He wrote a college essay about the injustices Jimmie Lee faced at Myers Park. De believes the essay won him an education at Harvard University. Almost 50 years later, he wanted to acknowledge Jimmie Lee’s indirect gift.
That’s why their phone call revealing the slave connection unnerved De: Suddenly slavery was personal.
Stakes are too high to let our emotions get in the way, Jimmie Lee told De. Together, they decided there might be a time to offer judgment about what happened on the Kirkpatrick Plantation 150 years ago. But not now.
With your genealogy and family records, I can learn about my family, too, Jimmie Lee told him. What part of Africa did my ancestors come from? How did they end up in Mecklenburg County? Were they sold, or born, into slavery?
So the two Kirkpatricks made what they consider to be the most significant breakthrough in talking honestly about this discovery and what it means.
They agreed to seek the truth, no matter where it leads, but withhold judgment.
You put aside the guilt, Jimmie Lee told De. I’ll put aside the anger and self-hate.
New generation, same questions
Jimmie Lee’s been back to Charlotte twice since he and De learned of their connection.
He came home in September to be the grand marshal in the Grier Heights Labor Day parade. That was important to him because his mother also had been grand marshal.
Jimmie Lee thought his story of struggle was buried back in 1965, but the Observer wrote about it in February 2013. He heard from old friends, reconnected with his half-brother, boxer Mike Tyson, was asked to speak about his experiences and was featured in a TV news report in Portland, Ore., his home. And he rode in the Grier Heights parade.
In January, he returned to Charlotte to speak at two high schools. He was the guest speaker at Charlotte Country Day for its Martin Luther King Jr. program. And he and De spoke at Myers Park. It was the first time they had been back at the school together since they left in 1966. Much of the school looked the same, but Jimmie Lee remembers thinking some of the issues do, too.
Jimmie Lee spoke with about 25 students, almost all black, who are part of Communities In Schools (CIS), a nonprofit that supports at-risk students.
“I saw kids there who want to succeed but have obstacles,” he said. “Poverty is tough, and the effects it has on student learning. That audience of at-risk kids is at every school in every major city.”
Stacey Weinstein, the Myers Park CIS site coordinator, says, “I have stellar students who are brilliant and smart and are going to go to college but come from families with no resources.”
Some don’t have computers; others are homeless and struggle to find a place to sleep every night.
One in every 4 black families in Mecklenburg County lives below the poverty level, compared with 1 in 10 white families. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the gap between whites and blacks is staggering. Last year, 62.5 percent of white students passed both the reading and math end-of-grade tests compared with 18.4 percent of black students and 21.6 percent of Hispanic students.
Jimmie Lee advises students to fight through obstacles and reach out to teachers and administrators for help. At both Myers Park and Country Day, he hears questions he was asking himself in high school.
Did your coaches care about you, or were they just using you?
How did you deal with trying to succeed at Myers Park without being viewed by your peers as leaving them behind or being “too white?”
What do you do if you see an opportunity that could be good for you, but you don’t have access?
He answers all of the questions patiently. Mostly, he advises students to follow their passions and to push through.
How do you put up with it? Well, he says, you just do.
Their origins in Charlotte
Two days later, De and Jimmie Lee search the Sardis cemetery together, looking for Kirkpatricks. Then, Jimmie Lee asks De to go to Grier Town, or Grier Heights as it’s called now, the African-American community where Jimmie Lee’s family lived.
De remembers being in Grier Town once. Probably in the mid-1960s, he drove an African-American woman who worked in his mother’s restaurant home. That fits with Jimmie Lee’s recollection: Whites mostly visited to bring workers home. When he brought his white teammates home to watch football, he says heads popped out all over his street.
De and Jimmie Lee stop at Antioch Church, built on land Jimmie Lee’s family donated. He spent hours every week at the church as a child, and he always gets emotional when he returns.
“That church is in my blood probably more than anything. I played in the dirt, planted peanuts and picked cotton on the soil around it. I wanted to share that with De,” Jimmie Lee says.
They also go to Dilworth, where De points out where his great-grandfather’s dairy farm once was.
Part of this is research. It helps both of them to understand similarities and differences in their lives. But it goes beyond that. They have become close friends.
“I have been given a great gift,” De says. “That a white guy can have this conversation with a black guy, this has been profound.”
What’s next for them both
De and Jimmie Lee are products of the 1960s. They both believed their generation could change the world. They both protested the Vietnam War. They moved to Berkeley, Calif., for parts of their lives. They think they may have lived blocks from each other in the early 1970s.
Now, they’re 65-year-old men who find themselves believing again that they’d like to change the world. But first, more research is necessary.
De plans to travel to Ireland. He knew his family came from Scotland, but in this past year he learned they lived in Ireland before emigrating to America in about 1760. Why did they move? How long did they stay in Ireland?
He also wants to trace Hugh Kirkpatrick’s movement from Sardis Presbyterian and Sharon Presbyterian churches to Ebenezer ARP, where he is buried. How did religion influence his family in the post-Civil War days?
Jimmie Lee continues to search for new pieces of his family’s puzzle, poring over ancient bills of sale that could determine whether his great-great-great-grandfather Sam was bought by Hugh Kirkpatrick, and at what price. It’s a long shot, he knows.
“Every little piece of information can paint a picture for me,” he says.
Where they’ve been and where they are going is rare, says Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “This is something that helps all of us recover the connections that our society turned its back on for generations. It helps all of us connect with a piece of our humanity that has been lost.”
Among joint projects that Jimmie Lee and De have discussed is whether they should have DNA tests to learn whether they are blood relatives. De said that’s one of the most common questions he’s been asked when people learn of his story with Jimmie Lee.
They might at some point, they say, but not now.
“The most important piece for us is the fact that we are descendents of a slave and a slave owner, that his ancestors held my ancestors in bondage,” Jimmie Lee says. “Psychologically we both want to understand that. What does that mean for me and what does that mean for him?”
De agrees. “DNA testing is secondary. If we do it and we turn out to be related, I’ve already told Jimmie that I’d be proud to be your cousin.”
De and Jimmie Lee are also talking about getting a grant for further research, building a model of reconciliation that might be used in classrooms, writing a book together, or possibly organizing a documentary. Jimmie Lee’s experience as an educator and De’s as an author of two mystery novels will be helpful.
“Jimmie and I both agree that if we could somehow be an influence or instrumental in helping Mecklenburg County come to some honest appraisal of some of its slavery roots, that would be a really significant conversation,” De says.
What they’ve learned often reminds Jimmie Lee of the horrors his family endured. It hurts to remember, but he finds context in their pain, inspiration in what they overcame.
“When I can put myself into the mind and the heart of my ancestors, then what is my anger compared to their anger? My emotions compared to what they had to endure?
“It’s critical that we don’t leave this challenge, this healing, to generations to come. Man made this problem and we can solve it if we have the will.”