The Life of Darryl Hunt, Before His Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment

Phoebe Zerwick on Family and Loss in Hunt’s Early Years

The Service Distributor’s convenience store, a low cinder block building at the corner of Chestnut and Liberty, served as an informal meeting spot for Darryl Hunt and Sammy Mitchell. They could sit on the low wall at the edge of the parking lot, drink their first beer of the night, and check on Ann and “Little Bit,” two prostitutes who worked Liberty Street just north of the store, on a stretch they called “the Block.”

When Hunt and Mitchell reached the corner on the evening of August 10, the store clerk called their names out over the loudspeaker. The police were looking for Mitchell again, no surprise. At 29, Mitchell had never been able to stay out of trouble, getting into fights and, even when he wasn’t involved, getting blamed anyway. Most of the officers who patrolled the east side of town knew him by reputation as a tough guy, with scars all over his chest and face to prove it.

There were other reasons Hunt could think of that the police might be looking for them that night. Maybe Ann or Little Bit had gotten busted again. Or maybe it was Sammy’s girlfriend, after him for not paying child support for Sammy Jr. Hunt went in and told the clerk to go ahead and let the police know he and Mitchell were there. Whatever it was, Hunt wasn’t worried. Had he known about the rape and murder of the young newspaper editor that morning, or that there was a manhunt on to find the Black man who killed her, he might have been more concerned. But he hadn’t heard the news.

The evening was unfolding much like every other that summer. Hunt and Mitchell had met up at the apartment on Patterson Avenue where Mitchell’s mother lived, then headed out for the night. They’d known each other for about five years, but had grown tight in the past year, ever since Hunt came home from California at 18 to collect an inheritance from his grandfather, who had managed to leave his grandson $8,000 from working at the city streets department.

Despite their age difference, Hunt and Mitchell spent so much time together that year that people they knew around the neighborhood began calling them “the Blues Brothers” or “the Gold Dust Twins.” In a Polaroid shot taken the night before Sykes’ murder, Hunt wears a white shirt, unbuttoned almost to his navel, and a ball cap, his head cocked to the side, the tail end of braided cornrows visible behind his left ear. Mitchell, heavier and bearded, wears a golf cap, tilted jauntily, his arm thrown casually over Hunt’s shoulder in a brotherly gesture.

Neither man had a job that summer, or his own apartment, so they depended on any number of women they knew from the neighborhood for a place to sleep. Hunt had learned in his early teens to survive by picking up women. Mitchell was equally charming. They had their choice of women that summer. For starters, Little Bit often gave Hunt money from the tricks she turned, though Hunt never thought of himself as her pimp. People in the neighborhood gossiped about Hunt and Little Bit because she was white. Sometimes, white people driving by would call out at her: “Why are you with that nigger?” Hunt didn’t care. He had grown fond of Little Bit and was trying to help her get off drugs. Little Bit was fond of him, too. After checking in with the two prostitutes, Hunt and Mitchell usually ended up at one of the dozens of illegal liquor houses that operated out of apartments and shotgun-style rental houses all over the east side of town, where most of the city’s Black population lived.

Had he known about the rape and murder of the young newspaper editor that morning, or that there was a manhunt on to find the Black man who killed her, he might have been more concerned. But he hadn’t heard the news.

Like many places in the heavily Baptist South, North Carolina discouraged drinking through laws that required food sales for a liquor license. More prosperous neighborhoods on the west side of town had their country clubs and high-end restaurants that sold fine wine and booze. Poor people had their liquor houses. Sometimes, “Guitar Gabriel” and other local blues players would show up. But most liquor houses were more basic: a couple of tables and some chairs for serious drinking. The night before Sykes’ killing, Hunt had paid a bartender at one of the liquor houses they frequented a dollar to take the Polaroid picture of him and Mitchell. Later, he and Mitchell spent the night with the McKey sisters, Cynthia and Mary, over on Dunleith Avenue. As he waited for the police, Hunt would not have known yet where the night would end. Maybe Little Bit would rent a room for the night, or they might end up with the McKeys again. They never had a clear plan, but whatever they did, Hunt would remember. He had an uncanny memory for events.

By evening, the morning fog had lifted and a light drizzle fell, a relief from the heavy heat of August. Hunt waited outside the convenience store for the police, while Mitchell went down the street to pay off a tab at Pookie’s Lounge. Hunt hadn’t been waiting long before the police pulled up. He waited when officers went into the store, where the clerk told them to look outside. He had nothing to hide and as far as he knew, neither did Mitchell. And he was still outside, waiting, when the two officers came out looking for Mitchell. They asked his name and where he’d been the night before. “We stayed over at Cynt’s house,” Hunt told them. “Did Sammy make a phone call?” “No.” As the police car pulled out of the parking lot, it passed Mitchell heading back to the store. The officers waved at Mitchell and drove on.

At the time, the questions meant little to Hunt, though later he would remember the details of the exchange as the beginning of a series of events that would change his life forever. He didn’t know that the name Sammy Mitchell was the only solid lead police had in the murder that morning. If anything, the questions made Hunt see how little police really knew about his friend or about the life they lived on the east side of town. If they really knew Mitchell, like he did, they would have known that he only called two people, ever—the bail bondsman and his mother.

*

As a child, Hunt had looked forward to regular weekend excursions to Patterson Avenue with a relative he knew only as Jean. She was part of the large extended family always welcome at the house on Maryland Avenue in the City View neighborhood, where Hunt had lived with the couple he knew as his parents, Willie and Hattie Stroud, and his older brother, also named Willie. Until he was nine, it wasn’t exactly clear to him how he and his brother were related to Jean. He thought of her as an older sister or an aunt. But there was something about Jean that drew him in. Maybe it was the way she held the boys close when she hugged them. Or her smile. Or that she was so much younger and more light-hearted than his parents, both in their fifties.

Most weekends, Jean would take the boys downtown for the day, to her apartment on Patterson Avenue, and show them off. City View was a quiet residential neighborhood, but Patterson, on the eastern edge of the city’s downtown, was always full of people: women pushing baby strollers, children playing, men and women getting off work at the tobacco factories down the street. Sometimes, Jean would take the boys out to eat or to shop for clothes. And she seemed to know everyone: the waitresses at the cafés, the sales clerk at the shoe store, the men playing cards in the parking lot. A picture from that time shows Jean with a short, stylish haircut, in a sleeveless blouse. Her friends on Patterson Avenue would comment on the resemblance between her and the boys. Darryl loved the commotion and the people who would call out their names when they passed. He felt at home there and hated it when the visits ended and they returned to their mom and dad on Maryland Avenue.

Hunt was born in 1965, the year after the Civil Rights Act passed, a law that tore down the legal framework for the segregated South but did little to change life on Maryland Avenue. The freeway, which had expanded US 52 from a two-lane road into a four-lane highway, opened the year he turned four, cutting off the east side of town from the rest of the city, a physical reminder of the city’s entrenched pattern of segregation. Maryland was just two blocks long, in a neighborhood tucked behind a park. The Kate B. Reynolds Hospital, established for Black residents by the wife of the tobacco magnate who founded the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, was within walking distance. So were other institutions that gave stability, if not equality, to the east side of town.

The campus of Winston-Salem State University, founded in 1892 as an African-American teachers college, was on the other side of Interstate 40, the east-west thoroughfare through town. Within half a mile were dozens of churches, including Goler Metropolitan AME Zion Church, a brick building with an imposing Greek Revival façade that had twice hosted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and First Calvary Baptist, also in the Greek Revival style, which Hunt’s family attended.

A school picture of Hunt from the time shows a skinny kid with thick glasses. He and his brother rode their bikes around the neighborhood, played baseball with the other kids, and made sure to do their chores. If they missed curfew or skipped their chores, they’d get a beating. The Strouds were loving but believed in discipline at home. Better to get a beating from those who loved you than to fall into the dangerous hands of outside authorities. Hattie Stroud worked for a dry cleaner for 20 years, until she became disabled with diabetes. Her husband, stocky, with a powerful build and a mustache, worked for the city streets division and paid his bills in cash on time and in person, often taking Darryl with him, to teach him about handling money.

The night before, they would sit at the kitchen table and count out the bills from the several thousand dollars in cash Stroud kept hidden at home. Stroud didn’t trust banks and kept most of his money in jars in the attic or buried in the backyard. He was a proud man, too. When his wife became disabled, having lost both legs to diabetes, Stroud applied for medical assistance and food stamps. In their reports, social workers noted with admiration his reluctance to apply for these benefits; they called him “exceptional.”

When Hunt was eight, Hattie died and the mysterious woman whose visits he always anticipated started spending more time with him and his brother. One afternoon, their father called Darryl and Willie into the living room. There were some things they needed to know about Jean, some things that would be hard for a nine-year-old boy to understand, but it was time they knew the truth. Jean was their mother, but when they were born, she was too young to take care of them, so he and Hattie raised them. And now that Hattie was gone, and Jean was a little older, she was going to be more of a mother to them.

Her neighborhood, the one Darryl liked so much, wasn’t a good place for children. It was too crowded and dangerous, so the plan was that Jean would move back home with them. A week later, their grandfather sat them down again. The woman they’d only just discovered was their mother was dead, murdered on the street outside her apartment building. She was 24.

It was a lot for a boy to make sense of, and in a way Darryl Hunt never did.

Years passed before Hunt learned the full story of the shooting. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, Patterson was a close-knit but violent neighborhood. The street was still the center of a prosperous Black business district, lined with lunch counters, grocery stores, and other small businesses. Black doctors, lawyers, and funeral directors had their offices there, too. There was a YMCA, separate from the Central YMCA on the west side of town, and two churches, another AME Zion Church, called Goler Memorial, and the wood-frame Lloyd Presbyterian Church with an apricot tree in its yard.

But middle-class Black people, those who made good money working in the tobacco factories on the southern end of the street, had long since moved out to suburban-style neighborhoods, still on the east side of town, where they could buy a brick split-level with a yard, leaving the neighborhood’s cheap rentals, the shotgun-style frame houses and run-down apartment buildings, to others less fortunate.

During the day, the sidewalks were crowded with people heading off to work and school or out shopping. At night, neighbors headed out to drink at one of the liquor houses operating out of one of the frame houses or one of the apartment buildings in the neighborhood, places with nicknames like “the Pink Palace,” for its pink stucco exterior, and “the Island,” for the tall trees growing beside it that swayed in the breeze like palm trees. Known around the neighborhood for fighting with the ferocity of a man, Jean Hunt was part of this hard-drinking crowd.

The boyfriend she’d been with since her early teens, a man named Frankie Crosby, was always in and out of jail. She also had a younger boyfriend, a teenager still in high school, who went by the nickname “Man.” Something happened between Jean and Man that enraged the teenager’s sister. Some said Jean had beaten Man up. Others said the sister, Jimmie Lee, was angry that a grown woman was dating her little brother. Whatever the reason was, she confronted Jean, making sure to bring a gun, and in the squabble, shot her dead.

It was a lot for a boy to make sense of, and in a way Darryl Hunt never did. He’d already lost Hattie, the woman he thought of as his mother. Then he lost his real mother before he ever had a chance to get used to calling her “mama” or to know all the normal things he imagined boys know about their mothers—her favorite color or what she liked best to eat or the kinds of flowers she would want on her birthday. And it was never even clear how his murdered mother and his grandparents were related, except that they had raised her the way they’d raised him.

In one version of the story, William Stroud came home from work one cold day to the sound of a baby’s cries coming from the vacant house next door. He followed the cries to find an abandoned baby girl with a note from a woman he was seeing on the side pinned to the baby’s blanket, telling him that she was leaving his baby in his care and heading out of town. In another version of the story, the baby’s paternity was unclear, but she was a helpless infant in need of a home, and William and Hattie gave her one. William and Hattie were strict with Hunt and his brother, so they must have been strict with Jean, too.

Still, she grew up wild and by the time she was 13, she was sent to a juvenile detention center, where she gave birth to Willie. Darryl was born next, when his mother was 15. At 17, she gave birth to a daughter, Doris. The Strouds took all three babies in, and raised them as their own, though Doris soon went to live with Jean’s mother. When Jean died, Stroud looked after the two boys as he always had.

*

Darryl was never much of a student. For one thing, he had trouble reading. And he didn’t care much for most of his teachers. But there was something about his sixth-grade teacher at Mebane Elementary School that made him feel at ease. Jo Anne North had grown up poor in the mountains, about an hour north of Winston-Salem, and was the first in her family to finish school. She understood in her bones the lives led by her students, white and Black, and she made her classroom a sanctuary. She covered the walls with colorful posters and the children’s art. She placed plants on the windowsill to hide the view.

It wasn’t easy managing a class of 30 students. One day, she put the boys in one line and the girls in another. It was time for them to get their eyes checked in the nurse’s office. She worked her way through the line of girls, handing out health cards, and was halfway down the line of boys, when one of them, a boy named Nathan, threw his card on the floor. “I’m not taking it,” Nathan said. “You gave them to the girls first.”

Darryl could see North hesitate, trying to decide what to do, a sign of weakness he knew would only make things worse for her. “Pick up your card,” he told the other boy. Nathan stared at him; Hunt stared back. “Pick up your card. The girls go first. That’s the rule.” His quiet authority worked, and his teacher was forever grateful.

Before the schools in Winston-Salem were desegregated in 1969, Mebane Elementary School had been a school for Black children, and by 1977, the year Hunt was in the sixth grade there, it had yet to be renovated. The brick outside was chipped. The worn wooden floors were hard to keep clean. And one of the houses across the street was reputed to be a whorehouse. When Jo Anne North started working there three years earlier, her friends warned her away, telling her it was too dangerous.

With its entrenched, segregated housing patterns, Winston-Salem relied on a busing plan to desegregate its schools, sending Black children to white suburban schools during the first three years of elementary school and white children to inner-city Black schools for the last three years. Darryl was one of eight Black children in a class of 30 sixth graders. And once he stood down the class bully over the health form, North came to count on him. She’d been warned, for example, that there was a good chance her car battery would be stolen during evening PTA meetings. She stopped worrying when she found Hunt standing by her car in the darkness, on guard.

North liked to reward her students on Fridays with bingo games and candy for prizes. But the school was infested with mice, which would get into the candy she had stored in the closet. When she complained to her students about having to set traps and, even worse, clean them out in the morning, Hunt volunteered to come in early, after his paper route, and set the traps. The routine left them plenty of time to talk before the other children came to school. North knew he didn’t have a mother and tried to give him extra attention.

Sometimes Hunt complained about his brother and his grandfather, like the time he took a beating because his brother blamed him for not mowing his part of the yard, when really it was Willie who hadn’t mown the grass. “Life isn’t always fair,” North told him, hoping that would be a comfort. She admired Hunt’s grandfather, who came to every parent-teacher conference. Stroud told her how he had gotten his GED so that he could be promoted to foreman with the city streets division. He wanted Darryl to be educated, too. “Darryl’s a good boy,” he would tell her. “Now, Willie. He’s a different story. But Darryl, that boy never gives me any trouble.”

___________________________________________

Excerpted from Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt © 2022 by Phoebe Zerwick. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Phoebe Zerwick
Phoebe Zerwick
Phoebe Zerwick is an award-winning investigative journalist, narrative writer, and college professor. Her writing has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; National Geographic; The Nation; the Winston-Salem Journal; and Glamour, among other publications. Her work has been recognized by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, Columbia University, and the North Carolina Press Association and featured in the HBO documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt. She is the director of the journalism program at Wake Forest University. Beyond Innocence is her first book.





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