One September morning in 1991, I was awakened by the sound of O’Neal Patrick’s voice on WUNC Radio.

“Them people died because a stolen chicken counted for more than a human life,” Patrick was saying.

My first thought was “What the hell is O’Neal Patrick doing on NPR?”

Last I heard from Patrick was while I was in high school, nearly 13 years before, when he sprinted across the football field during a game at Richmond Senior High School with a gaggle of police officers running after him.

I learned soon enough that Patrick had made what was at the time the definitive statement about a massive fire at the Imperial Food Products processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, that killed 25 workers trapped inside and left more than 50 injured.

The second-worst workplace accident in the state’s history had taken place less than six miles away from my hometown in Rockingham. It was impossible to not know many of the victims, many of whom were single mothers who lived at a nearby public housing complex. When we were children, we eagerly looked forward to elementary school field trips to the Mello Buttercup ice cream factory that was formerly housed there.

I got out of bed that morning and started writing a poem, “The Imperial’s ‘Ism.’” Then I wrote a brief essay, “For Hamlet.”

I read the poem at local events accompanied by alto saxophonist Larry Place blowing “Naima,” the ballad by jazz icon John Coltrane, whose birthplace was a short distance from Imperial Food.

I dropped the essay off with an editor at the backdoor of The Independent, the parent of the INDY, which was then located in a ramshackle, two-story home on Hillsborough Road, near an ABC Store and Ninth Street.

We didn’t know it then, but it was a golden age of print journalism throughout the Triangle, though the storm clouds were starting to gather. The Durham Morning Herald and The Durham Sun merged that year. Two years before in Raleigh,  the state’s paper of record, The News & Observer, ceased publication of its afternoon edition The Raleigh Times. 

Meanwhile, The Independent’s big competitor was the now-defunct Spectator Magazine, which featured the film critic Godfrey Cheshire and the great, must-read columnist Hal Crowther.

I was just out of college nearly a decade before when the ambitious NC Independent joined the Triangle’s print news ecosystem. I had interned at the now-closed, once mighty Carolina Times, which was founded in 1919 and grown by the legendary, fiery civil rights pioneer Louis Austin. 

By the time I walked through the doors of The Carolina Times in 1983, Mr. Austin had died and his daughter, Vivian Edmonds, a no-nonsense woman, served as publisher. Milton Jordan was the paper’s editor and the paper’s top reporters were Don Alderman and Isaiah Singletary. Working at The Carolina Times was like attending a journalism boot camp. 

The Carolina Times didn’t publish a single story of mine. I mean not even one. Still, Edmonds taught me enduring lessons about accuracy and spelling, while sharing her observations about race and the community’s less fortunate. 

I well remember The NC Independent’s earliest editions. I smile while recalling the names of its pioneering staffers; editors Katherine Fulton and Todd Oppenheimer; and “the three Sues,” Sue Houston, Sue Sturgis, and Sioux Watson, not to mention a fourth, Susan Harper, who would eventually become the paper’s publisher. The paper’s top journalists early on were Dee Reid, Barry Yeoman, Melinda Ruley, and Jenny Warburg.

During those early days of progressive journalism in the Triangle, diversity operated under a very different definition. Photos of the weekly newspaper’s staff show that the only thing Black in the newsroom was the ink that flowed through the reporters’ pens.

Still, it was a heady time, and the thick weekly paper—chock-full of hard-hitting investigative stories, along with features and profiles about the area’s arts scene—was happening. The paper offered the most acerbic, biting, and irreverent brand of reporting and writing south of The Village Voice in New York. It was a weekly whose pages echoed the New Journalism of Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and George Plimpton. I think one of the Sues, well into the mid-1990s, told me the paper’s annual advertising revenues were north of $300,000.

Never mind a holiday cash bonus, financially strapped newsrooms nowadays barely offer a holiday gift card. During the Independent’s salad days, its annual holiday parties were among the season’s must-attend events in the Bull City.

Years later, folks are still talking about the time the paper’s publisher turned Durham mayor, Steve Schewel, showed up at one affair wearing a tinfoil suit. It was, in reality, silver lamé, but after a couple of drinks and in the spirit of the season, we called it a tinfoil suit. Imagine Elton John with a notepad instead of a piano.

“Hayti’s Ghosts” by Thomasi McDonald.

The Independent’s editors’ decision to publish my essay in 1991 kicked off a decades-long relationship.

In 1997, I was writing regularly for the paper, along with a cadre of full-time Black staffers, notably Derek Jennings and Mosi Secret. My first full-length feature “Hayti’s Ghosts” reported that the historic Black community south of downtown Durham that was destroyed by urban renewal had its mirror images in similar communities across the country.

In 1999, I worked for the now-closed Daily Southerner in Tarboro. I was startled to learn that poor white folks who grew up just like then-president Bill Clinton hated him passionately. Less than a year later, I started a nearly 20-year career as a staff writer with The News & Observer, which ended when I agreed to an early retirement offer in 2019.

Months later, former INDY editor Jeff Billman offered me a job with the INDY, reporting and writing about one of the most envied beats in all of North Carolina journalism: the town of Durham. The INDY proves the old adage: it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. And even though its smaller print editions reflect the war of attrition that is gutting newsrooms across the country, it still manages to consistently punch above its weight. 

The INDY is a place where a nonapologetic brand of advocacy journalism takes place, and, to paraphrase the near-immortal words of James Weldon Johnson, each week lifts up voices throughout the community and beyond to sing.

Returning to the INDY newsroom was a no-brainer. It’s the hometown paper.

Happy 40th anniversary, y’all.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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