The power of a story and a connection

The Charlotte Observer, like most mainstream newspapers, overlooked black athletes and their communities during segregation.

You wouldn’t have read it in the Observer, but many older black Charlotteans would say that Paul Grier of West Charlotte High School was the city’s best basketball player ever. Few people outside his community knew about Grier, who played in the mid-1950s. When our reporter, Stan Olson, interviewed him in 1987, Grier became tearful. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve never been interviewed by a reporter.”

In the fall of 2012, I stumbled upon Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick’s name in another North Carolina newspaper, crediting him for integrating the Shrine Bowl. I had been at the Observer for 30 years, mostly as sports editor, but had never heard of him. Nor had anyone I asked.

David Scott and I wrote his story last year during Black History Month and revisited Mecklenburg County in the 1960s. The reporting and interviews reminded me of the bravery and agony of that generation. You can read it at charlotteobserver.com/myerspark.

De Kirkpatrick, a classmate of Jimmie Lee’s at Myers Park, read it and contacted us. We put him in touch with Jimmie Lee.

Their conversation turned out to be life -changing. And the coincidence of their shared history was worth telling another story. It led me into Mecklenburg County’s past again, this time more than 150 years ago.

I spent hours in the Carolina Room of our library, looking at slave narratives and census records, and in the UNC Charlotte Atkins Library special collections room, looking at church notes from 1860.

It is far more difficult to get any African-American perspective from that era. I talked to 10 historians and researchers for context. Just as with Jimmie Lee and De, it made me look at the city differently. The past is closer than we think.