In 1965, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick took a chance by transferring from an all-Black Second Ward High School to a predominantly white Myers Park High School.
Despite leading the Mustangs to an undefeated season, scoring 19 touchdowns and earning All-American honors, Kirkpatrick, a Black student, was snubbed for a spot on the Shrine Bowl, an annual game that features the best high school football players in the Carolinas.
Now 56 years later, Kirkpatrick, 73, is being recognized for his high school accomplishments by the Charlotte Sports Foundation, which has named an award in his honor – “The Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick Award.”
The award will be presented each fall to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools football player who excels both on the field and in his community. The winner, chosen from among 19 nominees — one from each CMS high school — will receive a $10,000 scholarship.
“When we first thought of this award, we knew Jimmie would be an incredible person to name it after,” Danny Morrison, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, said in a statement Monday. “He not only is one of the greatest players in Charlotte football history, but he endured so much with positivity and steadfast determination.”
Kirkpatrick, now a retired school teacher living in Portland, Oregon, said he was speechless when he found out about the award.
“It was a big surprise, and I didn’t see it coming,” he told QCity Metro.
An era of reckoning
The naming of the award comes at a time of racial reawakening in parts of the United States. Sparked, in part, by the Black Lives Matter movement, some of the nation’s leading institutions are beginning to acknowledge past discrimination as well as the current social and economic impacts of racial bias.
In cities throughout the South, monuments to Confederate heroes are being removed; colleges and universities are acknowledging past ties to the slave trade. (In 2017, former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who also served as U.S. transportation secretary under former President Barack Obama, was named to lead a commission to examine Davidson College’s historical links to slavery.
Likewise, here in Charlotte, streets and schools are being renamed to remove the names of men who advanced the myth of white supremacy and fought to preserve slavery.
Joe Sessoms, a spokesperson for Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas, said he was unaware of Kirkpatrick’s story before he was contacted on Monday by a QCity Metro reporter. Later in the interview, he said Kirkpatrick’s story has helped bring the game to where it is today.
“We have such a great participation from the Black community and Black athletes in the Shrine Bowl game, and we are most pleased about that,” he said.
A star running back
Kirkpatrick grew up in Charlotte’s Grier Town neighborhood (now Grier Heights), where he was a star running back at Second Ward High School.
When the school became integrated, he decided to transfer to Myers Park for his senior year; he said he viewed the transfer as an opportunity to improve academically and gain more exposure as an athlete.
Kirkpatrick said some Black residents didn’t want him to leave but he saw it as an opportunity to pave the way for others.
“People were fighting for equal rights and education, and equal opportunities to be able to go to the school of your choice and not based on race,” he said. “I wanted that challenge.”
Kirkpatrick said that while other Black students dealt with racial issues, he didn’t experience overt racism in the classes and hallways because of his status as an athlete. In fact, he said, he often intervened in break up conflicts between Black and White students.
His battles, he said, came on the football field, where he was called names, heckled by opposing fans and took cheap shots delivered by opposing players.
“It never deterred me whatsoever,” he recalled. “It wasn’t something I wasn’t familiar with.”
Given his on-field success, many assumed that Kirkpatrick would become the first Black player named to the Shrine Bowl that season, but after two of his White teammates were selected instead of him, some became outraged.
Civil Rights attorney Julius L. Chambers filed a lawsuit, demanding that the Shrine Bowl be canceled. And while the game continued as normal, it was integrated the following year, with Tommy Love and Titus Ivory becoming the first Black Shrine Bowl players.
Kirkpatrick would go on to play football at Purdue University and spent more than 30 years as an educator, coach, and administrator in the Portland school system.
He said he’s glad that his legacy will live on in the Charlotte community and bring light to a difficult time in the city.
“People identify with this story, and hopefully this award will always allow us all to go back and to really get into some of our own local history,” he said. “I’m just very proud that will be done under the name of Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick.”
Starting this December, the Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick Award will be handed out each year during the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, which is owned by the Charlotte Sports Foundation. Each CMS high school will have a nominee on the field during halftime at Bank of America Stadium.
Winners will be selected by a panel representing the sports foundation, CMS and the Charlotte community. And while the winning player will get a scholarship, the winning high school will get to display the trophy — a bronze bust in the likeness of Kirkpatrick — for the following year.
CMS Athletic Director Ericia Turner said Kirkpatrick’s legacy deserves to be honored and hopes his story will inspire CMS students.
“The hope is that, in times of adversity, they will have a point of reference in history that serves as an example that they too can overcome obstacles that may come their way in life,” she said. “Everything will not always go the way that they like or the way that they plan but they have to persevere and weather the storm just as Mr. Kirkpatrick did.”