As a young African-American man, Jimmie Wilkerson Jr. followed the cases of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, whose shooting deaths by a private citizen and a police officer, respectively, set off national protests. And when Towson men’s lacrosse coach Shawn Nadelen organized a team meeting in the fall to discuss a group of NFL players’ decisions to kneel during the playing of the national anthem, Wilkerson spoke up about life as a black male in today’s society.
Wilkerson, a junior short-stick defensive midfielder, is not the type who simply talks the talk. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with an eye toward joining a law-enforcement agency and ultimately the United States Secret Service.
“It’s very important to me,” Wilkerson said of trying to be part of the solution. “I feel like once we stop looking at racial profiling and all that, it will bring America as a whole closer together and it will make police effort in urban areas more receptive and impactful if African Americans can have more trust with police officers.”
Wilkerson’s career choice is especially noteworthy considering his father served more than 10 years in federal prisons on drug charges. But Jimmie Wilkerson Sr. is far from the type of parent who carries a grudge against the people who put him behind bars.
“If that’s what he wants to do, I’m all for it 110 percent,” the elder Wilkerson, 57, said via phone from his home in Wilmington, Del. “The things that I did, I knew that they were wrong. So I don’t have any hard feelings toward the officers that arrested me.”
Jimmie Wilkerson Sr. and the former Pamela Gray met when the latter was a senior at Bowie State and her roommate introduced her to Wilkerson’s sister, who in turn introduced her to her brother. The couple dated for about two years before getting married on Oct. 21, 1990. Three years later, their daughter, Briana, was born. And three years after her, Jimmie Jr. was born.
But even before getting married and having a family, the elder Wilkerson had been selling drugs since he was 15.
“It was something that in Wilmington, it was a pretty regular thing to do as a young person,” Jimmie Sr. said. “So I got caught up in it and didn’t stop until I went to prison.”
Wilkerson said one day, he left a supplier’s house, picked up his son from daycare and drove to his cousin’s house to pick up his daughter. As he pulled up to his cousin’s house, police swarmed his vehicle and he was arrested.
Wilkerson said he was charged with distributing drugs, conspiracy and money laundering, and was sentenced to 15 years in a federal penitentiary. He began serving that sentence in 1998.
Pamela Wilkerson took her two children and returned to her hometown of Huntingtown in Calvert County. With a large family network that included her parents, uncles, aunts and many cousins, she raised Briana and Jimmie Jr. on her own.
It wasn’t easy. Pamela Wilkerson said for a long time, her son was terrified by sirens on police and other emergency vehicles. When Jimmie Jr. developed a speech impediment, his mother found the appropriate educators to help him eventually overcome the impediment.
But Pamela Wilkerson never froze her husband out of the family. They visited him usually twice a month when he was housed in several prisons in New Jersey. When the elder Wilkerson was transferred to a prison in Canaan, Pa., the family made the eight-hour drive once a month.
“I always knew that it was more about the kids than it was about my relationship with Jimmie,” said Pamela Wilkerson, 54, who is the workforce operations manager for the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland’s JobSource initiative. “We would have to take a bad situation and make good out of it so that it would not have a negative effect on the kids, and that’s just kind of how we decided to do it. We didn’t sit down one day and just decided. It just happened that way.”
The elder Wilkerson – known as “Big Jimmie” – called his children every day from prison, usually around 7 p.m. when they were free from after-school activities and homework. His son – known as “Little Jimmie” – appreciated the effort.
“He just made it so easy for us that it never seemed like a challenge,” Jimmie Jr. said. “I just never looked at it that way, that I should be mad at him for being in that situation. He explained why he was in that situation, and that made me want to be a better person.”
The elder Wilkerson was released in 2008, but returned to Wilmington, where he drives tractor trailers and owns a property maintenance company that is contracted by the city.
Jimmie Sr. and Pamela divorced in 2014, but still talk almost daily. Jimmie Sr. credited his wife for raising Jimmie Jr. and Briana, who graduated from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and now works for the U.S. Department of the Navy.
“I did everything I could do, but I know her presence was way more important than me talking to them over the phone,” the elder Wilkerson said. “She was there with them every day. I think me being in jail and keeping a constant line of communication and letting them know how I felt about stuff and the things they could talk to me about, I feel like that was important, but I have to give credit to his mother.”
Jimmie Jr. said his father was open about his bad decisions and implored his son to use him as an example. That advice played a role in Jimmie Jr. majoring in criminal justice.
“He had a big impact,” he said of his father, both of whom talk daily. “He always pushed me to go in the opposite direction. When I told him that I wanted to do criminal justice, he said, ‘Yeah, go do that. If that’s your passion, do that.’ ”
Jimmie Wilkerson Jr. is now one of two starting short-stick defensive midfielders for the No. 19 Tigers (1-1), joining second-team All-American Zach Goodrich. Wilkerson, who has collected three ground balls so far this season, understands that opponents will try to pick on him.
“I know I’m going to get attacked a lot,” he said. “I’m ready for it. I’ve got to prove myself so that people don’t take advantage of me.”
A large family back in Huntingtown – about 40 which attended his graduation from St. Mary’s Ryken – is very supportive of the younger Wilkerson. But John Sothoron, who was the boys’ varsity lacrosse coach at St. Mary’s Ryken and was an All-American goalkeeper at Towson, said a large group of friends, coaches and teachers are also rooting for Jimmie Jr.
“Everybody’s pulling for that guy,” Sothoron said. “It always amazes me that you deal with certain kids or parents that complain about every stupid little thing in life, and Jimmie has had to face a lot of obstacles and not once do you see him complain or pout or have a negative attitude. He’s always looked at the positive side of everything.”