CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Drawn to his joyfulness and deep faith in God, everyone wanted to be around Joe Hunt.
Hunt, the first African American member of the Knights of Columbus in North Carolina, died Feb. 13 at age 87.
Hunt’s son, Jeff, counts himself particularly blessed to have spent so much time with his father. The two operated 920 Services, a Charlotte-based catering business. The business, a spinoff from Joe Hunt’s longtime bartending venture, is still thriving today.
Ed Norris, a fellow Knight of Columbus, and other friends noted they never heard Hunt say an unkind word about anyone, despite the discrimination Hunt initially faced in joining the Knights of Columbus in the segregated South.
Instead, Hunt cultivated a deeply personal relationship with God through prayer and the sacraments.
“He was a prayerful man,” Norris told the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte. “He’d say to me, ‘Brother Norris, if you would just wear out the knees in those pants, you’d get more help.'”
Hunt’s zest for life was evident to everyone who met him. The source of his joy was his faith in God, and what fed his soul was the place he most wanted to be: Mass.
Friends, family and fellow Knights flocked to Hunt’s funeral Mass Feb. 20 at his home parish of Our Lady of Consolation Church in Charlotte, with more tuning in to a livestream on the parish’s YouTube channel because of COVID-19 crowd restrictions.
Deacon Curtiss Todd, a longtime friend at the parish, eulogized Hunt in his homily, noting, “In times of snow, sleet, rain and COVID-19,” Joe was at Mass every Sunday “sitting in the first pew.”
“He knew and recognized that spiritually Jesus was in that sanctuary and on that altar,” Todd said, “and he wanted to be as close as he could to his Lord and Savior.”
Hunt’s faith-filled outlook came from his upbringing, his career in the Army and his family life in Charlotte.
Joseph Jefferson Hunt Sr. was born June 15, 1933, and raised by his mother and grandparents on their family farm west of Charlotte in Shelby, North Carolina.
The family went to a Southern Baptist church, and he and his brother and two sisters attended a general school where all ages learned together. Before heading off to school each morning, Hunt did chores on the farm, collecting eggs and gathering firewood.
“Most kids don’t understand what went into the making of America,” said Robert L. Douglas Jr., who joined the Knights of Columbus thanks to Hunt’s encouragement. “Joe was what every American should be. He worked hard, served in the military, and was a great husband and father.”
After graduation in 1954, Hunt was drafted into the U.S. Army as a combat engineer and served in Germany as part of the post-World War II rebuilding effort. He spent another 10 years in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Under the G.I. Bill, he earned an associate’s degree in business from Carver College in Atlanta, a historically black college with an emphasis on theology.
He and Mary Barnes married in 1958. The next year, they joined the Catholic Church, drawn to the faith because of the people at a little Catholic church near their Charlotte home: Our Lady of Consolation. With roots dating back to the 1940s, the parish has a rich heritage of Catholicism and African American traditions.
In 1962, Hunt befriended Bishop Vincent S. Waters of Raleigh, North Carolina, while serving as his driver. Waters encouraged Hunt to join the Knights of Columbus.
Although the Knights have a long history of advocating for racial equality, including admitting as members African Americans as far back as 1895, integration took much longer in the South.
In 1962, Hunt applied to become a Knight of Columbus in Council 770, the oldest council in North Carolina, established in Charlotte in 1903. Even though the rules allowed men of color, he still faced discrimination and his parish priest refused to sign Hunt’s application. The rejection hurt, but Waters encouraged Hunt to persist.
The council’s chaplain quietly signed his application instead. On Nov. 16, 1965, Hunt became a first-degree Knight — the first African American Knight of Columbus in North Carolina. In 1968, Hunt received his fourth degree.
The principles of each degree are: Charity, first degree; unity, second degree; fraternity, third degree; and patriotism, fourth degree.
Despite the difficulties Hunt faced getting into the Knights of Columbus, his son said far more people were with him than against him. Norris said Hunt “rose above all that,” referring to the discrimination and bigotry he endured during the Jim Crow era.
Hunt became the Knights’ district marshal, traveling all over North Carolina. “He would drive around with the state deputy, going from the mountains to the coast, to promote the Knights,” said Sergio Miranda, current state treasurer and grand knight of Council 770. “We don’t think that’s unusual today, but a black man and white man driving around from place to place raised some eyebrows in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Hunt served church and community — as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, a leader of the parish Men’s Group and as a Boy Scout troop leader. He did this all while caring for his family, including wife Mary, who suffered serious health problems, and their two children, Cheryle and Jeff. He and Mary celebrated 46 years of marriage before her death in 2004.
He occupied all of the Knights’ council and assembly roles, including grand knight from 1997 to 1999. He won the North Carolina Golden Knight of the Year Award in 2018.
“My father didn’t see color, financial or economic status, he just treated everyone the same, and he wanted everyone to feel the same,” said Jeff, who was knighted by his father when he received his own fourth degree.
“Even after he retired, our clients would say, ‘Bring your father; we just want him there.’ They wanted his presence.”
Ferguson is a correspondent for the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte.