Former Columbus police officers Joe Johnson and Thomas Lee reminisce about their respective times on the police force Thursday as they examine a picture of the department's first six African-American officers. Lee was one of those six officers, hired in the late 1960s. Though Lee left the department after only a few years and eventually opened his own business, Johnson, who was hired in 1974, remained at Columbus Police Department for 40 years. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
May 11, 2019 10:00:48 PM
Thomas Lee Sr. and Joe Johnson Jr. sat with their heads bent over a copy of a grainy, 50-year-old photograph of the first black police officers in the Columbus Police Department.
"I think I was 22," Lee said, pointing to himself in the photo, the second of six officers. "Twenty-two or 23.
"We had beat down some bushes by the time you got there," he said to Johnson.
"Oh, yeah," agreed Johnson, who joined the police force in 1974, several years after the photo was taken. "We had it easy."
The two former officers were both hired at CPD within the first decade after the city began integrating the department. Lee is the only surviving member of the first six. He doesn't remember the exact year he was hired, but it was in the mid-to-late 1960s.
With the Civil Rights movement in full swing and Freedom Riders in town registering local African Americans to vote, a bi-racial committee, made up of community leaders such as Civil Rights activist Dr. E.J. Stringer and high school principal R.E. Hunt, became concerned violence would spread to Columbus. They decided the best way to prevent uprisings was to hire African-American police officers.
It was Hunt who went to Lee and asked him to join the department.
"He said, 'Well, I want you to be the first because we want to do this right,'" Lee said.
The six officers were each assigned to one of three shifts, and they rode two to a car patrolling black neighborhoods. They weren't allowed to patrol white neighborhoods in east Columbus, and they could not arrest white suspects.
"I'm very appreciative of what (the first six black officers) had to take because they had to put up with a lot more (than we did)," said former police officer Keith Worshaim, who worked for the department from 1983-2009. "... They could not initially arrest a white person. ... It kind of ties your hands a little bit, and if people know that, they can use it to their advantage."
But what Lee remembers most is the resentment white officers had toward him and the other African-American officers.
"They would have something at the police club sometimes, and we would be last to know or wouldn't know until it was over," he said. "It was things like that. But we got over that and when most of the guys saw that we were serious, everybody got along.
"Some of the older guys I don't think it ever got to," he added. "Like my captain, (segregation) was just embedded in him. ... I guess you still see some of that today."
One night Lee picked up several suspects who had gotten into a fight at a business in a black neighborhood and he was driving them to the jail. As he listened to the police radio, he realized he had forgotten to check back in with the dispatcher.
"So (the captain) called the dispatcher," Lee said. "He said, 'Where's Car 5?' (The dispatcher) said, 'Well, you know Car 5 checked out that n***** joint.' I stopped right there and let those guys (the suspects) out."
He said it was the sort of language white officers had used for years, never having to worry about black officers overhearing.
"I think about that today," Lee said.
The other thing Lee remembers is the tension in the community when college students, both black and white, moved into Columbus' freedom house on Sixth Avenue North.
"You had people coming in from different sections of the United States," Johnson said. "...They (were) here trying to get blacks registered to vote, and that was a no-no. But through time that resistance broke down."
No serious violence ever occurred in Columbus, Lee said, which he thinks is thanks to Stringer, Hunt and other members of the bi-racial committee.
"There was just so many things happening at one time," Lee said. "Civil rights, Medgar Evers was killed, Dr. King, the president (John F. Kennedy). It was so many things. Then you had Vietnam going, you had riots. It was tense times. I probably could write five different books about stuff that happened. ... We just did what we had to do."
Johnson was still a teenager when the first two black police officers, John Thomas and Herbert Chandler, were hired in 1965. He remembers it well.
"It was something new and it was progress for the black community to have two black police officers on the police force," Johnson said.
If during that time someone had told Johnson that he would be an officer in less than 10 years, he would have told them "no way." He attended Jackson State University intending to become a teacher, only gaining an interest in law enforcement when he befriended a Jackson police officer who tried to recruit him. Johnson turned him down, worried the money it cost his parents to send him to school would be wasted if he didn't pursue teaching.
When he returned to Columbus a couple of years later, Thomas successfully recruited him to the local force.
Johnson said most of those resentments and tensions between white and black officers had eased by then, and black officers could arrest white suspects. He was trained by Harold Malone, another of the original six African Americans on the force.
Johnson said officers like Thomas, Chandler and Malone all taught him to treat everyone with respect and fairness.
"You don't mistreat (anybody). ... When you go there (to the scene of a call), you get everybody's side. Whoever's involved, you talk to both parties. And you treat them with respect," Johnson said. "That's what I was taught by all those guys. It made it much easier for me to handle myself and train others after me."
Johnson worked for the department for 40 years, retiring in 2014 as assistant chief. Along the way, he'd been the first black officer to head the criminal investigation division.
But his favorite thing about his job was working with and training younger officers -- including Worshaim and current Chief Fred Shelton.
"The thing that stands out to me now, that really gives me a great deal of pleasure, is knowing that I trained the present chief of Columbus Police Department," he said. "That's my footprint on the (department)."
Shelton also worked with Thomas and some of the other first black officers.
"I did learn from them, and it contributed to me staying in the police department and moving through the ranks," he said. "Of course there was some wisdom and knowledge passed by these guys.
"When I'm hiring officers, I'm trying to make sure our forces are reflective of the community we serve," he added. "We know that Columbus is a predominantly black community, so ideally you want a sufficient number of African-American officers to serve here."
He added that goes for all ethnicities in a community.
"Having an officer understand that person's traditions and their customs makes them a better officer," he said. "That's just something that they don't teach in the academy."
Lee left CPD after about four years to work first at Sears, then General Tires. In 1992, he bought what is now Lee-Sykes Funeral Home on 12th Street North.
"My lifelong ambition was to own my own business," he said. "But I would not (trade anything) for the experience that I got for the time that I spent on the police department."
He said his favorite thing about the job was helping people and especially ensuring everyone he interacted with was treated equally.
"Trying to see that people were treated equally (and) trying to give people the benefit of the doubt," he said. "I know there were a lot of police brutality cases before we got there, and that was another part of (why) we were hired too."
He said he worries sometimes about the state of policing today -- particularly the number of white officers shooting black civilians.
"You've got some bad cops everywhere," he said. "I don't even know why they got the point of doing that, but you've got some people that have got problems. They don't need to be there.
"I see all these shootings today," he added. "We had some tough times, but we never thought about (that), not unless I had to. We had been in some tough situations and never used any deadly force."
Johnson said he's not worried about CPD, thanks to Shelton and his focus on community policing, which aims to make officers more visible and build trust between them and citizens. But he thinks nationwide, police officers aren't as well trained as they were when he was first hired. They don't know how to disarm suspects or assess threats, he said, which is why there are so many police shootings.
"The community and the police (have gotten) farther and farther apart," Johnson said. "There's a push now to get them back together, but as long as we have these officers doing bad shootings, it's not going to happen. They're going to have to go back and train the officers to assess the threat. It's hard to say, 'Well I thought Joe was pulling out a gun,' and I come up with a cell phone and I'm dead. That doesn't help the community. Period."
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