by Mary Cathrin May and Matt Lutz
From Tallahassee’s earliest days until after the Civil War, the chief law enforcement officer was the city marshal who was appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. In an age of slavery, it goes without saying that only white men served on the city council and the mayor appointed only white men to the position of marshal. For a few years after the war circumstances changed and African-Americans were elected to that office and served as city policemen. However, in time the situation reverted back to old traditional patterns of segregation that continued for another half-century!
A Brief History of the Tallahassee Police Department, 1826-1952
In 1865 Leon’s slaves were freed, and in 1867 the U. S. Congress granted eligible black males over the age of 21 the right to vote and run for public office. Subsequently, all positions in or under the auspices of city government were made elective, and in 1871 for the first time in the town’s history a coalition of white and newly-enfranchised black Republicans elected five black men to the Tallahassee City Council, including City Marshal Henry Sutton.
Chart. Tallahassee City Council, December 1871
Office Elected (Republican Party)
Mayor Charles H. Edwards
Clerk/Treasurer William G. Stewart
City Marshal Henry Sutton
Tax Assessor Samuel Quaile
Samuel I. Tibbitts William Lee Apthorp Gilbert F. Avery Jonathan C. Gibbs
Everett C. Jones Jonas W. Toer Charles H. Walton Robert S. Williams
Note: African-American names shown in bold italics
Between 1871 and 1887, with only one exception, black men were elected to the post of marshal and on special occasions supplemented the city’s force with “regular” and “special” policemen, many of whom were black. In fact, in 1871 and in 1877 the police force consisted entirely of black men, a fact once lamented in national newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune (February 21, 1871). By that time, however, Reconstruction had ended and with it the power of the Republican Party. Once again conservative white Democrats—the progeny of former Confederates—reclaimed political power at all levels of government in Florida.
In 1885 the mainly white legislature revised the Florida State Constitution, enacting laws that severely limited the civil rights of Florida’s black citizens, including the right to vote and hold public office. Then in 1891, for the first time since 1870, Tallahassee voters elected an all-white, all-Democrat city council. With the installation of the council, Bob Robinson — the last regular black policeman in Tallahassee in the 19th century — left the force. By 1893 the new council had abolished the office of City Marshal and authorized the mayor to appoint a Chief of Police, a white man and a former Confederate, to head a small force of whites-only law enforcement officers within the corporate limits.
The city council continued to govern Tallahassee until 1920 when that system was replaced by the more modern City Commission-City Manager form of municipal government. Under the new organization, the commission appointed a city manager, who in turn was authorized to appoint and supervise the Chief of Police. At the time, the town was small: the city limits extended only about a mile around the State Capitol, the population was under 6,000, and the police force consisted of only three regular officers, the chief and two patrolmen. So it remained for the next thirty-three years, during which time the town expanded slowly and the size of the police force often fluctuated, but seldom numbered over ten men, all white, to uphold law and order in the racially-segregated town.
In 1952, the corporate limits were extended from 6.8 to 12.5 square miles and the population doubled to an estimated 35,000, of which about two-thirds were white, conservative, and deeply loyal to the Democrat Party. Meanwhile, the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) had increased to 38 men, although the exact number continued to vary according to circumstances and the city budget. But, in view of the town’s sudden growth the force was considerably understaffed, and in January 1952 Police Chief John E. Montgomery told the commission that he needed 12 more officers to provide “adequate protection” in the Capital City. The chief was pleased when commissioners agreed to fund the additional policemen in the next budget, which took effect in March, and the news soon hit the streets that the TPD was hiring!
Meanwhile — Behind the Scenes, 1947-1950
Well before 1952 a group of local pastors had organized an inter-racial Ministerial Alliance to fight against the long-standing problem of racism and discrimination in Tallahassee. In 1947, the Alliance resolved to oppose any “legislation or efforts to discriminate against citizens because of race, religion or creed,” and in 1948 a group from the Alliance petitioned Mayor Fred Lowery and the city commission to “hire Negro policemen.” Reverend T. Alvin Corbett of the Capital Christian Church acted as spokesman for the white ministers and Reverend Noah Z. Graham of Bethel Methodist Church spoke for the Negroes. The commissioners agreed to take the matter “under advisement,” but no action was forthcoming. Two years later, in 1949, the Alliance again petitioned the council to hire Negro policemen and this time they had the support of Police Chief Montgomery. Once more the commissioners said they would “study the matter;” but time passed and nothing happened!
The Forces Align!
By January 1952, however, the expansion of the city and the increase in population led commissioners to approve Police Chief Montgomery’s request to hire twelve more policemen at the TPD. The news quickly circulated through town, and on January 16 the Reverend David H. Brooks, pastor at the St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, and a group from the Negro Ministerial Alliance again petitioned Mayor W. H. Cates and the commission to hire black policemen. Once more Chief Montgomery supported the pastors, and following a lengthy conversation Mayor Cates said he saw no objection, adding “I think we’re about ready for the move.”
In the ensuing discussion, the two sides agreed that a select committee of the Negro Inter-Civic Council would screen applications from eligible black candidates and submit their names for Montgomery’s consideration. By February 17 the committee had a list of twelve qualified applicants and on March 6 they went to police headquarters to be interviewed by Chief Montgomery. In a strange turn of events Montgomery was absent that day, and only five days later, on March 11, he unexpectedly and without explanation resigned.
Montgomery was quickly replaced by a new chief, W. E. Hurlbert from the Jacksonville Police Department, who told the commission and the existing police force that he planned to hire ten new policemen, including a “sufficient number” of blacks. He explained that the black policemen would wear the same uniform and receive the same pay as their white counterparts, and after a period of training would be assigned to patrol in “their area of town.”
Chief Hurlbert wasted no time; he appraised all the applicants and on May 1 announced the names of the ten new policemen, three of whom were black: Fred Douglas Lee, Clarence Mitchell, and Freddie D. Golden. The announcement conferred on the three men the distinction of being the FIRST African-Americans to serve on the Tallahassee Police force in the 20th century and signaled to the town that cultural change was in the air!
TPD’s First African-American Policemen in 20th Century
Minutes, Tallahassee City Council (1860-1920) and Tallahassee City Commission (1920-1952)
The Weekly Floridian; The Tallahassee True Democrat; The Daily Democrat; and The Tallahassee Democrat
Brown, Jr., Canter. Florida’s Black Public Officials, 1867-1924 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1998)
Davis, William Watson. The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1964)
Richardson, Joe M. The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida, 1865-1877 (Tallahassee: The Florida State University, 1965)