Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, Charlotte athlete and legend, takes his rightful place in civil rights history

It’s rare to think of history as front page news. But that is exactly where history belongs when, in its own right, it is an untold story.

Today, you can expect to read many things about Charlotte’s history that are news to you as we begin a special three-part series called “Breaking Through."

I’ll start with the obvious. Nearly 50 years later, the identity of an African-American who became one of the greatest high school football player's in the history of Charlotte remains unknown to even some of the city’s most ardent sports fans.

He made a courageous decision to break through racial barriers, hoping that college scouts would notice him at a predominantly white high school. We have never connected that choice to one of the most racially violent chapters in our city’s history.

Today, you can read that story. Today, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick takes his rightful place in history.

Observer Senior Sports Editor Gary Schwab stumbled onto a reference to Kirkpatrick in November. Schwab was searching online for information about Charlotte’s annual Shrine Bowl, which features the high school all-star teams of North and South Carolina.

“I didn’t know who Kirkpatrick was, even though I have worked at the Observer for almost 30 years, mostly as sports editor,” Schwab said. “No one I asked knew, either.”

Observer researcher Maria David found a phone number for Kirkpatrick in Portland, Ore. Schwab and reporter David Scott made the call.

“I’m humbled that you want to tell my story,” Kirkpatrick said on the other end of the line.

It turns out that Kirkpatrick had been telling it for years in Oregon during Black History Month. But he had never had the opportunity to tell it in Charlotte, where his brush with history unfolded.

In 1964 and 1965, when Kirkpatrick was in high school, the Observer did notice him, but only in breathless bouts of breaking news. Kirkpatrick, the unstoppable running back for all-black Second Ward High School. Kirkpatrick, the black athlete who created a buzz by transferring to mostly white Myers Park High. Kirkpatrick, the first black player to make the Observer’s all-star high school football team.

Even the appearance of those stories was unusual. And though there were episodic reports of Kirkpatrick in a civil rights battle, it is only this week's stories that acknowledge the price he paid on his journey.

“Mainstream newspapers rarely covered black athletes in the 1960s, or earlier during segregated times,” Schwab said. “There are dozens of great athletes whose stories went untold or are long forgotten, dozens more whose potential was never realized because of lack of opportunity.”

The Observer has doubled back to report some of those stories in recent years, writing about people like Paul Grier who went to West Charlotte High School in the mid-1950s and is considered by some to be the city’s best-ever high school basketball player.

When we first interviewed Grier, he paused before answering a question. Tears ran down his face.

“Stan Olson, the reporter, asked if he was OK,” Schwab recalled. “’Yes,’ Grier said. ‘It's just that no reporter has ever talked with me before.’”

David Scott wrote about Willie Cooper. While Charlie Scott is remembered as the North Carolina Tar Heels' first black basketball player, Cooper played briefly as a freshman two years earlier, in 1964. In response, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of his family’s home in Elm City, about 80 miles east of Chapel Hill.

“I have always been struck by the fact that there is a history here that has gone untold for decades,” Schwab said.

Many people helped us reassemble the history surrounding Kirkpatrick. His former Myers Park quarterback, Neb Hayden, still has the school's film from most of the games of the 1965 season, on 16mm reel-to-reel tape. Hayden let us convert to a digital format some of that film, plus other footage previously transferred to VHS tapes.

As a result, you can see for yourself at why fans found it necessary to rise to their feet nearly every time Kirkpatrick had the football.

We also interviewed former teammates and opposing players. Some now meet as alumni of two of Charlotte’s former all-black high schools, Second Ward and West Charlotte. Once bitter rivals, they work together to support the community and call themselves the Thursday Morning Breakfast Club.

Kirkpatrick spent hours with Schwab and Scott, recounting his childhood in Charlotte’s Grier Heights community and his fateful decision to leave Second Ward High for Myers Park High. He then traveled to Charlotte to reunite with teammates from both teams, black and white.

Most had not seen him since their days as teenagers.

“This became a chance to talk to his old teammates,” Schwab said, “to see if what happened mattered to them as much as it mattered to him.”

And now it becomes history that matters to all of us.

Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.