That Sunday evening, Big Jake Blake was driving on South Boulevard toward his favorite Thai restaurant when his phone rang throughout the car. It was Julia Jackson, his ex and mother to their son, Jacob. Big Jake figured she was calling about their grandson’s eighth birthday.
When he answered, though, she was hysterical, wailing in surround sound. He eased over to a side street. Since a heart bypass surgery a few years ago, he’s tried to ease into most everything.
“What happened?” he said calmly.
“Jacob’s been shot!” she said.
It was the evening before the Republican National Convention, which Charlotte would host for one day. Uptown, just a few blocks behind Big Jake to the north, was partially blocked off by concrete barriers. That weekend the streets Jake was driving on had been filled with protesters. They’d had a few confrontations with police officers with pepper spray. But Big Jake paid little mind to the politics or the protests.
He spent that Sunday with his youngest, an 11-year-old boy, in their apartment complex in Brightwalk, a mixed-income housing community off of Statesville Road. Jake loves living there. He calls the office managers his sisters. His father, the late Reverend Jacob Blake, would’ve liked that: The reverend has a housing complex named after him in Jake’s hometown, having dedicated his life to affordable housing efforts there.
Jake moved to Charlotte five years ago to escape the cold. He came unhappy and unhealthy. Now his heart was strong, and he was finally feeling upbeat. He especially likes the food. His favorite Thai spot is a place called Ray Lai, just south of Uptown. He goes there when he wants to treat himself. And that Sunday night was one of those nights. He could just about see the sign from where he was parked that evening.
“Shot by who?” Big Jake said to Julia, his voice rising.
Julia screamed, “The police!”
Eight hundred miles away in Kenosha, Wisconsin, their son Jacob was on his way to the hospital with seven bullet wounds in his back.
Big Jake didn’t sleep that night. The next day, when Trump swept through Charlotte for the RNC, Jacob Blake’s father was two-and-a-half miles away. He didn’t sleep that night, either.
On Tuesday, Jake loaded up his 11-year-old, a sixth-grader at Sugar Creek Charter, and started driving north. He doesn’t remember much of the trip. He assumes he drove through the mountains of West Virginia, but can’t recall. He stopped with relatives in Kentucky to nap, then carried on. Along the way, a reporter from Chicago called, and in his first interview about the incident Big Jake said, “I want to put my hand on my son’s cheek and kiss him on his forehead, and then I’ll be OK.”
The details are familiar to most people by now: A blurry cell phone video, shot by a neighbor across the street, shows Jacob Blake stomping away from police officers and getting in his car. It shows one officer grabbing Jacob’s white shirt and firing into his back.
Jacob’s three kids were in the car. Including the son who had a birthday that day. Just minutes earlier, the little boy had talked to his grandfather in Charlotte and told him about “all the good stuff he was gonna get” that day.
Protesters flooded the streets in Kenosha. Within a few days, the NBA, WNBA, NFL, and MLB had all canceled games or practices in protest of another police shooting of a Black man.
“F**K THIS MAN!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” LeBron James tweeted.
Twenty-nine-year-old Jacob Blake became the sad bookend to a summer that began with George Floyd. With one huge, important difference: Jacob would live. The seven shots left him paralyzed, but still able to breathe and speak.
Over the next few days and weeks, people would analyze the tape and Jacob’s background. They’d learn about the sexual assault charges filed against him in July. (He’s since pleaded not guilty and will face pretrial hearings in late October or November.) They’d read statements from Wisconsin officials who said that on that Sunday evening when he was shot, August 23, they were in fact responding to a call from the woman who took out those charges. And they’d hear from Blake’s lawyer, Ben Crump, who says that isn’t true, that Jacob was simply breaking up another disturbance.
Like most incidents it’s more complicated than one video can show. But to his father, none of his son’s past squares with his present. Jacob’s still in a hospital room and paralyzed, and, Big Jake says, that isn’t justice.
“My son is not an animal,” he said to me last week, choking up as he spoke from a hotel room near the hospital. “He’s a human being.”
The first time Big Jake found himself looking over someone he loved in the hospital, he was 10 years old, and the person in the bed was his father.
The late Reverend Jacob Blake — father to Big Jake, grandfather to Jacob Blake, great-grandfather to the eight-year-old who was gonna get a lot of good stuff on his birthday — was a giant figure for Black people in the Chicago area in the mid-20th century.
He was a rising star in the A.M.E. church in the 1950s and 1960s, serving at St. James A.M.E., St. Luke A.M.E., and First A.M.E. He marched in the 1963 March on Washington, his son says. In 1967, he moved the family to Evanston to take over Ebenezer A.M.E.
Big Jake was born a year before that last move, in 1966. He was one of five children.
Some of his earliest memories were of sitting under the tables at the offices of the Chicago Defender, the African-American newspaper, while his father participated in discussions with civil rights and political leaders. He says he met a teenage Al Sharpton there once.
His dad’s work introduced him to lots of people. He was friends with the family of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Through that family Big Jake met Muhammad Ali, during the years Ali was exiled from boxing and living in Chicago.
“He bought me candy,” Jake says today.
Still, for all the famous people Jake met, when his first-grade teacher asked him to write about his hero, only one person came to mind.
“I loved Muhammad Ali, but my hero was my father,” Big Jake says. “There was Superman, but I had my old man. He led out of the goodness of his heart. He didn’t lead for money or anything.”
The Reverend Blake’s passion was housing.
In Evanston today, Jacob Blake Manor is a low-income senior housing community. It’s a brick, five-story apartment complex about a mile from Northwestern University and Lake Michigan.
Reverend Blake also led his congregation to build a nine-story facility known as Ebenezer Prime Towers. It was the first Black-sponsored and Black-managed project in the white suburb. For some perspective, at the time rent went for between $125 and $156 per month for people who made no more than $6,615 per year.
On April 7, 1968, three days after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, the Reverend Blake helped lead a march through Evanston with more than 2,000 participants — “most of them white,” the Tribune reported.
Then he stood in front of a gathering at Raymond Park and urged the mayor and government officials to pass stricter open occupancy laws, to keep landlords from discriminating against Black people, and to open white communities to nonwhite neighbors.
“The fittest tribute the city of Evanston can pay to Martin Luther King is the immediate passage of an effective and comprehensive housing law,” Reverend Blake said.
The mayor had a proposal ready. He put it up to a voice vote after the reverend spoke, and it passed right there.
That’s the kind of influence Jacob Blake’s grandfather had.
And that’s part of what made it so difficult for so many when he fell ill in December 1976. Young Big Jake was just 10 years old. Hundreds came to visit him, to the point where the hospital had security around his room. In his father’s final night alive, Jake told his mom he wanted to go see him once more.
“Well, you know your daddy doesn’t want you to go up there crying,” she said.
So he choked down his feelings and went up and talked to his dad about fishing.
He told him he loved him, and then it spilled out. The young boy dropped over, his face on his father’s.
“I can still feel his mus-, his mus-,” Jake said last week, breaking down, “his mustache.”
Now after the 800-mile drive, he was standing over his son, telling him to hang on.
Within his first hours in town in Kenosha, on Tuesday, August 25, Big Jake had to be at a press conference. Julia would be there, and so would Jacob’s siblings. That was the first time the family’s attorney, Ben Crump, let the world know that Jacob was paralyzed from the waist down, but that he’d likely survive.
Watching the press conference from Charlotte, Michael DeVaul was in disbelief.
DeVaul is a senior vice president and chief social responsibility officer with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte. He also helped found the Charlotte-Mecklenburg chapter of My Brother’s Keeper, an Obama-era program designed to address opportunity gaps for boys of color. In 2013, the White House selected DeVaul as one of its “Champions of Change” for his community work.
He’s one of the most well-known connectors in Charlotte.
But long before he became a community fixture here, DeVaul was a kid growing up in Evanston as a member of Ebenezer A.M.E. His mother was a deacon and his father was in the men’s choir.
DeVaul grew up going to the segregated Black YMCA in Evanston; the Reverend Blake was a board member.
DeVaul went off to college in Missouri, then came home to take a job as the youth director at his hometown YMCA, which was integrated by then. In one of DeVaul’s first weeks on the job, Reverend Blake’s wife Patricia visited and told the young man to watch over her son, Jake, who was about 11 or 12 then.
DeVaul became Jake’s mentor. His Little League coach.
“He was a savior for me, man,” Jake says now.
Then Jake grew up. He went to college at Winston-Salem State to play football, but knee troubles ended his career. He got married and had children. He worked as a water plant operator for four or five years. Then he started his own business — Jake’s Journeyman Floor Care Service. He snagged big contracts, installing floors for Advance Auto Parts across the country, and ran the business out of two states, Illinois and North Carolina.
He and Julia also had Jacob in that time. Jacob started his schooling in Illinois, then did some grade school and middle school in Winston-Salem, before going through high school in Illinois. Jacob was the clown of family from the jump, Jake says.
“Each one of your children … has characteristics that separates them from the other child. One may be more happy than the other child or something,” he said. “But this guy was funnier than any of the other kids. From an early age, he was the jokester.”
Jake continued to run the business from two states while going through a divorce, but drifted back to Illinois mostly, because that’s where his family was.
About 10 years ago, while living there, he started feeling sick. He had trouble breathing. He carried on like that for five years, before finally having surgery to fix it in 2014. After the bypass, his doctors told him that a warmer climate might do him good. He’d always liked North Carolina, but thought Winston-Salem was too small for him. So he came to Charlotte.
Within a few days here, he went grocery shopping at a Harris Teeter in north Charlotte. In the parking lot, he randomly saw his old Little League coach. Jake and DeVaul hugged and caught up, and took a picture together. Jake knew he’d found the right city for him in that moment, he said.
On August 22, the day before Jacob was shot, DeVaul posted on Instagram what seemed like a random post about James Baldwin and Black philanthropy, and said how grateful he was to have grown up in an A.M.E. Church.
Then, the next night, his sister called him with the news that Jake Blake’s son had been shot.
DeVaul spent the night crying. He and his wife, Laura, have two grown sons. She asked him what was wrong.
“I feel like they shot my son,” Michael said.
Two days later, DeVaul was watching the press conference. He’s only met young Jacob Blake once, when he was a kid. But he watched as Jacob’s mother and father spoke. Each gave powerful addresses. “A house that is against each other cannot stand,” Julia said. But it was when Jacob’s sister, Letera Widman, spoke, that DeVaul raised his eyebrows.
“I am my brother’s keeper,” she said.
As one of the leaders of the local My Brother’s Keeper organization, DeVaul took it as a sign for him to do something.
Big Jake Blake is coming back to Charlotte this weekend for the first time since he drove north to see his son. MBKCLT is covering his travel. The organization also is sponsoring a rally for the Blake family on Sunday, September 20, at 1 p.m. at Romare Bearden Park.
If you recognize the date, it’s because it’s also the fourth anniversary of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, whose death led to widespread protests in 2016. The event will include a tribute to Scott, and also to Justin Carr, who was killed during the protests the following night. Carr’s family will not be there, though; his brother is getting married Sunday.
The week after his son was shot, Big Jake attended the August 28 March on Washington. He spoke with Al Sharpton next to him, 40-plus years after their first meeting. He told Sharpton that he didn’t want to be there, not under these circumstances, but that his father would’ve been proud to see him speak.
In the crowd in Washington were Michael DeVaul and his son, Beau, who lives and works in Baltimore.
DeVaul sent me a picture of a newspaper clipping, dated 1968. In it, the Reverend Jacob Blake is handing over guns to police officers. The caption says he was part of a group of ministers who were helping to round up weapons. It’s a striking scene: the Reverend Jacob Blake, two hands on a gun, giving it over to a white police officer, 42 years before a white police officer would shoot his grandson.
The story of Jacob Blake is complicated. The story of Big Jake is, too. And I certainly don’t know all of it. But there’s no question that father loves son, and no question that love started being passed down at least a generation before that.
And I know Big Jake has people in Charlotte who love him, too. “That’s our brother!” Nisha, the Brightwalk manager, told me.
I’ve gotten to know the families of several shooting victims in recent years, most recently Vivian Carr, the mother of Justin Carr, the protester who was shot in Charlotte in 2016. The big difference is that Jacob Blake is still here, and able to talk about it.
The other day he posted a video, and said, “There’s a lot more life to live out here, man. … Please, I’m telling you, change y’all lives out there.”
Michael DeVaul and I talked a good bit about that after the conversation with Jake. About surviving a police shooting in America in 2020. About a father living through his son’s survival of a police shooting in America in 2020. About why Big Jake made sure to say, unprompted, that his son is a human being.
“If you look, you can find something on anyone,” Michael told me. “But it doesn’t mean his son deserved to be shot seven times in the back. And it doesn’t change that Jacob is still here. He’s still with us. That’s why we’re rallying. They need to know that we’ve got them.”
There’s one more thing I do know about this story, from my own son: Nothing in this life brings as much joy as seeing him smile.
And that’s actually where Jake Blake started our conversation. I’d asked him how things were going. He didn’t start with the visit from the vice-presidential candidate or any of the heavy stuff.
He started here: “Last night, Jacob laughed twice.”
Of Big Jake Blake’s children, remember, Jacob was the jokester. For two weeks after the shooting, Jacob couldn’t laugh because of the pain from surgeries and the staples.
But on Labor Day evening, 15 days after that Sunday evening, Big Jake Blake told his son he needed something from him: “Come on, man, tell me a joke.”
“Tell you a joke?”
Sitting in his hospital bed, Jacob Blake laughed, really laughed, at the request his father was making of him. Now wasn’t the time to joke, he said, and that made him laugh more.
It was contagious.
“It might not be funny to you,” he told me, cracking up now, “but it was to me.”