When Charlotte College moved to a nearly 300-acre stretch of farmland in north Charlotte in 1961, construction crews finished the first two buildings ahead of schedule. It was August, and The Charlotte Observer was so excited it sent a photographer out for pictures of the buildings standing next to a barn.
A woman saw that picture in the paper the next day and recognized the barn. This new college campus was being built on land her family used to farm. She was thrilled. She called the administrators and asked how much it would cost to fund a scholarship.
Two-hundred fifteen dollars, the school told her. A helluva deal even back then.
The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, gave the money and endowed the “Five Oaks Farm Scholarship.”
The Observer ran a story on the gift.
Another man saw that story, couldn’t believe the value, and donated $215 to endow another scholarship.
And that’s how what’s now UNC Charlotte began to grow out there on Highway 49—one act of kindness leading to another act of kindness leading to another.
Fifty-eight years later, UNC Charlotte faces a new beginning. On Tuesday it was the scene of our city’s introduction to the evil mass shooting virus that plagues the United States in the 21st century, when a 22-year-old punk with a pistol shot up a liberal arts class on the last day of school.
Apologies if my characterization offends you, but I’m tired of making excuses for people who shoot other people, whether this one or any other murder. We’ve had 47 homicides in Charlotte this year. That’s too damn many. A gun doesn’t make a man strong; it’s a tool to spread his weaknesses. And I think it’s important that future shooters know that this is how they’ll be remembered, not as the evil masterminds they’d like to be.
In this instance Trystan Terrell appears to have had a fetish with mass shootings. Several news outlets reported that he’d researched three possible locations in Charlotte to carry out his crime. He chose the university on the old farmland for some reason.
After he started shooting, though, he met a courageous young man named Riley Howell, 21 years old, who didn’t have a gun. Howell tackled him. He lost his life saving others. He’s rightfully been hailed a hero. As I write this, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers are escorting his remains out of the city as they head home for his services in Waynesville.
It would be nice if we didn’t need heroes like him in the future. But we will.
That’s reality, that one shooting and outcry will lead to another shooting and outcry and the punks we elect to public office will shrug and say, Well, I guess there’s nothing we can do.
On Monday, the day before the shooting at UNC Charlotte, legendary director John Singleton died at 51 years old. People have praised him for his body of work, from Boyz n the Hood to Rosewood. My favorite is Higher Learning. It came out in 1995, when I was 15, and it was ahead of its time in taking on school shootings, race, white fragility, sexual assault, and LGBTQ issues.
Essentially, it’s a film about kids who come to college from all different backgrounds – black and white and gay and straight – and shows how those tensions play out in a college setting. In the end, a character named Remy played by Michael Rapaport, trying to prove himself worthy in a group of white supremacists, takes a bolt-action sniper rifle to the top of a building and shoots up a peace rally. One shot kills a young black woman named Deja, played by Tyra Banks.
The movie shook me then, at 15, and shakes me now, at 39.
The biggest difference between then and now is that reality doesn’t shake me as much anymore. I was home on Tuesday night when I first saw news of the UNC Charlotte shooting, about four miles from my front door. Time was, I’d have run straight there. But this time I held back, held back, and when it became official that “only two” people died, I held back for good.
What the hell, Mike?
We’re in Charleston now. One of Laura’s good friends is getting married tonight, 48 hours after the shooting. My mind’s been back in Charlotte since we got here yesterday. It’s hard to be away from big news. I’ve scrolled through photos from friends Alvin Jacobs and Logan Cyrus and Travis Dove. I’ve read great stuff from friends Tommy Tomlinson and Emma Way and Katie Levans and a trio of Charlotte Observer writers’ account of what happened in one classroom.
Last night, I put the phone down long enough to attend the rehearsal dinner and afterparty. The jasmine wrapped around the patio was beautiful, the toasts were uncomfortable, and the old-fashioned was, as most old-fashioneds are, the best I ever had.
We left the hotel bar around 11. While we were waiting for our uber, I looked across the parking lot and saw the steeple of Mother Emanuel. Next month marks four years since a white supremacist killed nine people in that sacred place.
I stood and looked at that steeple, same as I have several times over the past four years, chills coming over me as I wondered how anyone could do it, how anyone could walk into a place where someone’s worshipping or learning or shopping and steal lives.
I didn’t spend any time wondering whether anything’s really changed since then, though. That answer’s perfectly clear.
But I’ll keep holding out hope that maybe now it will. Maybe what Riley Howell did in that classroom off Highway 49 in Charlotte was the start of something, and one brave act will lead to another brave act and another, and soon the heroes will eliminate the punks.