Willie Ernest Grimes was born in 1949 in Winterville, just south of Greenville, to Joe and Ella Grimes. He grew up on the family farm, the fourth of five children. He picked crops, took care of animals, played basketball at the Boys & Girls club, sang in the church choir.
Grimes enrolled at A&T because many teachers at his segregated, all-black high school were proud Aggie alums. He planned to study economics and become an Air Force officer.
At A&T, Grimes joined the Army ROTC and pledged the Pershing Rifles, a military fraternity. He worked part-time at a discount store and lived in a house on Bluford Street. Others considered him studious and a nice guy. A friend described him to a reporter as “neither a militant nor an activist.”
Early on May 22, 1969, Grimes and two friends decided to walk to the McDonald’s on Summit Avenue. They had heard gunfire and rumors that whites were looking to beat up blacks. They knew the risks. They went anyway.
About 1 a.m., as Grimes and his friends walked up Laurel Street toward Carver Hall, a car rolled up. Shots were fired. The young men ran. Grimes, hit once in the back of the head, lay where he was shot. Four students took Grimes to the A&T infirmary, then raced him across town to the hospital. The 20-year-old sophomore had died long before he got there.
Joe Grimes made the drive to Greensboro the next day to get his son’s things. A friend described Mr. Grimes as “heartbroken when he looked at Willie’s clothes there in his room.”
Back home in Winterville, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral. The pallbearers were his fraternity brothers. The service was held in the high school gym because no church was big enough to hold a crowd that large.
Almost 40 years later, in 2008, A&T awarded Grimes a posthumous bachelor’s degree at commencement. Ella Grimes accepted the degree for her late son.