When former N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte heard on the late news Wednesday that parishioners at Emanuel AME Church were shot in his hometown, he telephoned his oldest sister.
No one answered.
Graham began a frantic search to locate Cynthia Hurd – “a mother figure and a confidant.”
He refused to talk about her in past tense until Thursday afternoon when he got official confirmation from the coroner: Hurd was one of nine people killed at prayer meeting Wednesday evening. She would have turned 55 on Sunday.
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“She was the one who brought us closer together,” Graham said. “It’s so senseless.”
His voice went silent and Graham began to weep. “She was just a beautiful person,” he said between sobs of grief. “She didn’t deserve it.”
Graham gathered in Charleston with his three brothers. The siblings, including the two sisters, grew up attending historic Emanuel AME Church. Their mother sang in the choir. Graham served on the usher board. Hurd, he said, was active in the church.
“It was home to us,” Graham said. “It would be typical of her to be there. The last anyone heard, she was going to church.”
‘I loved her’
Hurd worked as a librarian for 31 years, Graham said. She was the regional manager of the St. Andrews branch of the Charleston County Public Library. She graduated from Clark Atlanta University, he said, and earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of South Carolina.
“She was a nerd,” Graham said lovingly. In honor of Hurd and the other victims, all 16 of the county’s public libraries were closed Thursday.
She lived with her husband, Steve, in the brick bungalow where Graham grew up on the city’s east side. He moved from Charleston to Charlotte when he went to college at Johnson C. Smith University but kept in close contact.
“When my mother passed 15 years ago, she took over the role of mother,” Graham said. He last saw her in May when she came to his daughter’s graduation from Winston-Salem State University. He last talked to her by phone the day before she died.
Graham said his sister encouraged him to run for public office again, after losing his 2014 bid for the 12th Congressional District seat to U.S. Rep. Alma Adams. He gave up his seat in the legislature to enter that race.
“The last thing she told me was ‘Don’t look back. Move forward.’... She loved me. And I loved her.”
As Graham talked, calls came repeatedly to his cell phone. One was from former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, now U.S. Transportation Secretary.
After talking briefly with Foxx, Graham reflected on President Obama’s comments earlier about gun violence and added his own:
“We’ve been here before, whether it occurs at Virginia Tech, or a movie theater, or a school room or a church,” Graham said. “It’s time we really have a conversation about guns in America and a conversation about mental health.”
Shock in neighborhood
On Benson Street, where Graham grew up, neighbors expressed shock at Hurd’s death.
“My heart is so full,” said Jane Doris Smith, as she began to weep. “I knew her when she was just a kid. She was wonderful – smart, quiet, a hard worker.”
The neighbors all talked about “her brother, the senator.” As they reminisced, Jack O’Brien, their mail carrier, walked up. He had just learned of Hurd’s death.
“I am sick to my stomach,” O’Brien said. “She’s such a lovely lady. She and her husband are both so pleasant.”
Steve Hurd is a longshoreman, Graham said. He said Hurd was on a ship near Saudi Arabia, trying to find a way home. Graham said that Steve Hurd also learned of the shooting through a media account and called his wife.
She didn’t answer.