BY JON WILSON, Columnist
Like every other aspect of life in much of 20th century St. Petersburg, the city’s police force had restrictive customs based on race. No African Americans were on the force until 1950 – and even then, those pioneer officers were restricted to patrolling and making arrests in African-American neighborhoods. They also could not use locker rooms, restrooms or drinking fountains, which were marked “white only.”
Louis Burrows, Samuel Jones, Titus Robinson and Willie Seay joined the police department in 1949 after a who’s who of black leaders fought a long battle to persuade the city to hire African-American officers.
Among those prominent men were Monroe McRae, funeral home owner; dentists Gilbert Leggett and B. F. Jones; and businessmen J.P. Moses and Charlie Williams. The influential Elks and Masonic lodges in the black community also threw their weight behind the hiring effort.
It took a while for police leadership to budge. “They didn’t much want black people arresting white people,” McRae told a newspaper in 1985.
But the city police force was understaffed, with fewer than 50 officers. Some white officers didn’t like patrolling black neighborhoods. Eventually, the city gave in.
Jones eventually became the first black police sergeant in St. Petersburg, commanding the force’s 10 black officers when he was promoted in 1960. “Sgt. Jones is just an outstanding officer and a fine man,” said Police Chief E. Wilson Purdy.
Standing 6 feet 5 and weighing 245 pounds, Jones often was called simply “Big Sam.” But he had a reputation for diplomacy when dealing with unruly prisoners. A reporter once described him as having “a voice as mild as a pine tree’s sigh.”
After retiring in 1970, Jones became the city’s and county’s first black court bailiff.
The first four black officers got a quick taste of police work. They seized illegal whiskey, arrested murder suspects, went after speeders in auto chases and broke up gambling parties. Sometimes they even were asked to track down people whose library books were too long overdue.
But they still could not arrest white people.
They still could not patrol white neighborhoods. When they did use a patrol car, it carried the number C-52. It stood for Colored Car 52.
Those “could nots” became festering issues.
In 1965, a younger group of officers decided things had to change. With the help of young lawyer James B. Sanderlin, they sued their employer – the City of St. Petersburg. The officers lost the first round in court, but a federal court of appeals ruled in their favor.
Their working life gradually changed for the better. But it wasn’t until years later that their contribution to the community was recognized in a formal way.
They have gone down in St. Petersburg history as the “Courageous 12.” Their names were Adam Baker, Freddie L. Crawford, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Holland, Leon Jackson, Robert V. Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathaniel Wooten.
In a special 2007 ceremony at City Hall, then-mayor Rick Baker honored the group, presenting the former officers with a symbolic key to the city. “These courageous individuals opened the door for all those who live in St. Petersburg – regardless of race, gender or ethnicity – to have the equal opportunity to succeed and contribute to their city,” he said.
Former police chief and deputy mayor Goliath Davis, who joined the police force in 1974, had a specific understanding of the officers’ contributions.
“Because of the courage and vigilance of these urban Buffalo Soldiers, I was given the opportunity to rise through the ranks and become St. Petersburg’s first African- American police chief,” he said. “We stood on their shoulders.”