Twice they saw headlights in the darkness. Twice they scattered.
On this night, a group of young black men walking across the N.C. A&T campus would surely attract unwanted attention from the police.
Then a third car appeared from out of the shadows. This one with its headlights off, as Larry Kirby remembers it.
“This particular car,” he said, “it was like it was waiting.”
They heard gunshots. Everybody ran.
When the gunfire stopped, Kirby called out to his friends. All answered except one: his fraternity brother Willie Grimes.
Grimes lay on the ground with a bullet in the back of his head.
In the polarizing climate of race relations in late May 1969, A&T had become a war zone. Anger over school administrators striking down the results of a student election at Dudley High School, combined with deeper issues of inequality, had spilled over to A&T.
The death of the sophomore caused tensions to spiral out of control. By the time it all ended, the National Guard had been called in and the city placed under curfew for two days. Scott Hall dormitory had been shot up. A National Guardsman, five Greensboro police officers and two students had been injured by gunfire.
And 20-year-old Willie Grimes lay dead, his father left to bring his body back home to rural eastern North Carolina to bury him.
Grimes’ life was marked by promise. A personable and strong student who grew up in a close-knit farming family, he planned to become an Air Force officer after graduation.
His death, however, became a footnote to what happened in 1969. A 1970 inquiry by a civil rights body scarcely mentions his name. He’s part of A&T’s history, but a campus marker lists the wrong month of his death. Though he’s considered a martyr for the cause, he was apolitical.
“Out of all the people at A&T, he was the last person you’d expect this to happen to,” fraternity brother John Collins said.
His death remains the city’s oldest unsolved homicide. That’s not likely to change, investigators say, because there are no leads in the 37-year-old crime. Then and now, they’ve said Grimes was a casualty of war on a campus under siege and there’s no way to determine who shot him.
Eyewitnesses think Grimes was killed by police and that the case was never seriously investigated, according to news articles from the time and two dozen recent interviews. Police have denied any involvement.
Time has not diminished the family’s memories of a loved son and brother. Grimes still serves as a guiding force in his younger brother’s life.
The family wants the case solved but has little hope.
“I have often wondered … how could you get somebody to open up the case and investigate the case after all these years?” asked Gloria Short, Willie’s oldest sister.
Life down east
In eastern North Carolina, where tobacco ruled, the five Grimes children spent much of their time harvesting crops their parents raised in the rural country just outside Greenville. Each cared for their own farm animals.
Willie kept busy. He played basketball at the Boys & Girls Club and later in high school. He ran the bases on the baseball diamond his father created next to one of the fields. He attended Boy Scout camporees. He sang in the church choir.
“That was our daily lives,” said George Grimes, Willie’s brother. “We worked together. We played together.”
Willie and George, the youngest children, forged an especially close bond. Older by four years, Willie became George’s role model. Well-liked, especially by the girls, Willie even took George on the younger brother’s first date.
Attending A&T seemed a natural decision. Half the faculty of the segregated high school Willie attended earned degrees there. And Greensboro seemed a safer place for a young black man than segregated Pitt County, where the Ku Klux Klan made its presence known.
At A&T, classmates knew Willie as friendly — a good guy. He worked part time at a variety store on Market Street. He joined the Pershing Rifles, an ROTC fraternity. He avoided the political scene on campus.
The course work challenged Willie more than it had in high school. But he still managed good grades. His parents, Joe and Ella, would accept nothing less. All the Grimes children made the honor roll and had perfect attendance.
“Our folks wouldn’t have it any other way,” George said.
In April 1969, Willie returned home for his grandfather’s funeral. Although sad, the occasion marked the first time in awhile that the five Grimes siblings had been together, along with all their cousins.
Willie marveled at the home-cooked meals as they sat around the table. At one gathering, he reached in to get another chicken breast.
“Enough!” someone admonished.
But, Willie argued, when would he get home cooking like this again?
Gloria can’t remember if he snatched the chicken back.
“I hope we gave him the chicken,” she said.
After their grandfather’s funeral, they parted ways. Their father always told them not to say goodbyes. “Just say, ‘I’ll see you later,’ ” he told them.
So they went their separate ways, without goodbyes, expecting to see Willie at semester’s end.
‘Grimes has been hit’
On Wednesday, May 21, Willie called home to say he cashed his income tax check. He kept some cash and wired the rest home.
The semester was nearly over, and his father would be at A&T that weekend to pick him up.
Later that night, Willie talked about the chaos on campus with friends Kirby and Collins. They decided to walk to McDonald’s, less than a mile away on Summit Avenue, Kirby said.
They’d heard a rumor that a group of whites was assaulting blacks at the restaurant. The friends weren’t looking for a confrontation, but they wanted food and were willing to make a statement to get it. None carried a weapon.
They left Scott Hall to walk across campus and met up with other students investigating similar rumors.
As they neared the edge of campus, a car pulled up, and they heard gunshots, Kirby remembers.
“Grimes has been hit,” someone yelled out.
At the Grimes’ home in Winterville, a phone call woke the family. Their father answered. A student said Willie had been shot.
At 1:30 a.m. May 22, a speeding car carrying Willie arrived at Moses Cone Hospital, according to the autopsy. Grimes was dead on arrival . X-rays revealed the bullet lodged in the base of his brain. The coroner concluded Willie died within 15 to 20 minutes of being shot.
The phone rang again in Winterville. Willie was dead, the caller said.
The next morning, his father left for Greensboro to pick up Willie’s body.
“He was just tore all to pieces,” Gloria said.
The funeral took place at Willie’s high school . No church could hold the crowd of 2,000 who came to pay their respects. A&T students poured into Winterville. His fraternity brothers served as pallbearers. People swore it was the largest funeral for a young black man in the state. They buried him in an all-black cemetery.
“I knew my brother was special,” Gloria said. “But I never thought this many people would come to his funeral.”
The day after the shooting, Kirby went downtown to the police station. He told a detective and the police chief what he had seen. He didn’t mention why they decided to go to McDonald’s, fearing they’d label Willie a troublemaker.
Kirby nervously told them he thought the shots had come from a police car.
“I think that was the last thing they wanted to hear,” he said.
Sitting in the city’s police command center, then-Greensboro Mayor Jack Elam knew a bad situation had gotten worse when he learned of Grimes’ death.
Elam knew rumors would be rampant. He woke Dr. George Evans, a respected black physician, in the middle of the night.
“There are going to be all kinds of tales told about the death of Willie Grimes,” he told Evans. “Please view the autopsy.”
Elam hoped a public statement by Evans might diminish rumors of a cover-up, but Evans never went public. Times were tense. Evans would have been under fire no matter what he said.
Several false stories spread. Among them, that the shooting happened at Scott Hall and that an officer shot Willie in the leg and then in the head as he begged for mercy.
The police, State Bureau of Investigation and FBI investigated the case.
“The amount of shooting that was going on, it was undoubtedly a stray bullet,” said Dargan Frierson, an FBI agent in Greensboro who investigated the death.
A raid of Scott and Cooper halls by the National Guard turned up nine weapons, although informants had told investigators many weapons had been removed.
The bullet that killed Grimes did not come from any of the weapons recovered in the dorm, said Greensboro police Detective Marty Sexton, the investigator now assigned to cold cases.
Another difficulty came in finding evidence. Because of the gunfire, police could not immediately secure the scene. The investigation was hampered by uncooperative students and conflicting eyewitnesses. In recent interviews, accounts of that night contain shades of differences. Many say time has hindered their recollections.
Frierson said he investigated the shooting thoroughly.
“I came up with nothing,” he said. “Nobody knew who killed Willie Grimes.”
Witnesses reported seeing a light-colored police car at the scene and even officers standing outside the car.
But Frierson said he found no proof of police involvement in the shooting and that no local law enforcement drove white cars. Frierson, an agent in Greensboro for 20 years, said his close relationship with the police did not deter him.
“I would have liked very much to prove that the police didn’t do it,” he said. “These were my friends and all. But I couldn’t prove it either way.”
Police also found nothing to indicate it was one of their own, said William Swing, an aide to the chief at the time who later became chief himself.
“Our investigation — the department’s — didn’t find anything that indicated any officer was involved,” he said. “It was generally believed he was shot by another student.”
Authorities think Grimes was shot with a small-caliber weapon, probably between .22 and .32 caliber, Sexton said.
The police used .38-caliber weapons; the National Guard used .45-caliber weapons.
Police later said they carried weapons that could have fired the bullet that killed Grimes, according to news articles at the time.
And some students claimed officers carried personal weapons.
Investigators can only speculate where the badly damaged bullet came from.
“It’s like he was a casualty of war,” Sexton said.
Waiting for answers
The Grimes family hired a lawyer, but little came of it.
“There was a widespread feeling that in effect he was assassinated, that he had not done anything wrong and he was deliberately shot,” said the lawyer, Norman Smith, who doesn’t remember specific details of the case.
Had the police shot Willie, it would have been explosive for a city already on edge, he said.
“I’m sure there were people in the department that desperately wanted it to not be that,” he said.
In August 1969, the police and SBI said their investigation was inconclusive.
“Things happened to our race, and it was something you learned to live with,” Gloria said.
“You almost knew when it happened that nothing was going to be done. No one is going to say a white police officer killed a black man.”
Over the past two decades, two detectives have looked at the case but made little progress.
About 15 years ago, former Greensboro police Detective Lee Walker inquired about testing the weapons officers used in 1969. Walker said he was told by then-police Chief Sylvester Daughtry that he had more pressing, current cases to deal with.
Daughtry said the conversation never took place.
Sexton read the file in 2003 but found no promising leads.
The legacy of 1969
The turbulence of the late 1960s created a tension on college campuses throughout the country.
The fight for civil rights became more militant. Women’s rights gained traction. The unpopular Vietnam War raged on. Authorities saw college students as pushing too hard for society to change.
A&T and Greensboro were no exception.
As the place where the peaceful sit-ins protesting segregation took root in 1960, Greensboro tried to project an image of a progressive city, said Lewis A. Brandon III, a longtime civil rights activist in the city. Maintaining that image meant not challenging the status quo.
“To say you have good race relations and everything is hunky-dory is a myth,” Brandon said.
It was a troubling time for the city, lawyer Smith said: “People didn’t know how far things were going to go.”
The tension in Greensboro overshadowed Willie’s death. The city wanted to squelch the riots, rather than find his brother’s killer, George said.
“It was just a black kid got killed on campus,” he said.
In the aftermath, A&T and city officials were called to testify before a congressional committee. Law enforcement was criticized for overreacting. Black leaders in the city pushed for a federal probe of the violence. A state arm of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings that fall in Greensboro, focusing on the root cause of the violence and ways to solve issues of inequality. In the report that followed, Willie is rarely mentioned.
Some believe the city never dealt with the underlying issues of racism.
“Greensboro has this capacity to forget about things and not want to discuss anything that’s not in its best interest,” Brandon said.
Over time, there’s been a growing acknowledgement of Willie at A&T. Several spots on campus mention his role in fighting for civil rights, including a marker from his fraternity and a monument in front of the student union. Willie also will be included as part of the memorial to Scott Hall, which was torn down in 2004.
But too many people don’t know what happened to Willie, George said.
“This is part of A&T history, just like the four guys sitting at Woolworth,” he said, referring to the sit-in movement.
Willie Avon Drake, an eyewitness to the shooting and a campus leader involved in the movement, said classmates still talk about Grimes’ unsolved death and the irony that he was an innocent bystander who didn’t bother with politics.
Willie may not have been active in the movement, but his death contributed to the fight for civil rights, said Calvin “C.C.” Henderson, a friend of the Grimes family and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Pitt County.
“He definitely did not die in vain ,” he said. “He died and contributed to the cause of equality and justice to our society. His death has helped make others want to stand up and be better men and women.”
Willie’s mother, Ella, still lives in Winterville, where cotton swirls along the country roads. She lives in a modest home not far from where her children grew up and the land they worked. Gloria has moved in to help care for her.
Both George and Ella tear up as they first speak about Willie.
“It’s just like it was yesterday,” George said.
Ella’s husband, Joe, passed away 20 years ago. A son died of cancer in 1999. Another daughter lives in Baltimore.
Ella, 84, holds on to what memories she can. Photos of her family together. A bookcase Willie made . His yearbooks, which hold bright messages scrawled by friends: “I hope for the best life can offer.”
The family doesn’t talk about his death much. They never did. It isn’t an event they want to relive, George said.
“That’s how we dealt with it,” he said. “By not discussing it. By letting it go.”
When George began applying to colleges two years after his brother died, A&T didn’t make the list. A phone call changed that. A student on the other end said they had been looking for George’s application and that they would be sending him one. Completed forms arrived with notations indicating where to sign.
Between a scholarship and work study, George could go to A&T for free. The family had trepidations, but the offer was too good to pass up. He enrolled and continued on the path his brother chartered.
That was no surprise. The brothers had been as close as could be. With their birthdays weeks apart, both fall under the Pisces sign, symbolized by intertwined fish.
“We were twin fish,” he said. “We were so much alike.”
George joined the Army ROTC and pledged the Pershing Rifles fraternity. He graduated and became the first commissioned officer in his family, fulfilling the dream that had been his brother’s.
He married and had two sons, now adults. He’s spent 30 years working for the federal government, first in the Army as an intelligence officer. Now he lives in Fayetteville, where he’s chief of the ambulatory care and processing section for the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center .
He’s a proud Aggie who’s missed only three homecomings.
George, 53, thinks about his brother often. About what Willie’s military career would have been like. About the family he never had. About everything Willie missed out on.
“He would have been successful,’’ George said. “All of the good things I’ve accomplished in life, I owe a lot of it to him.”