BY INDHIRA SUERO ACOSTA, Neighborhood News Bureau Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG – Fifty-one years ago 12 African-American police officers made history when they fought for the right to serve and protect their city. A right no white officer has ever had to fight for. They filed a federal lawsuit to be able to patrol the white neighborhoods, among other demands, and after three years of struggle they were assigned citywide.
Besides putting their jobs at risk with their decision, the men known as the Courageous 12 were also risking their families’ future. Each one of them had wives and kids; they didn’t fight by themselves.
Half a century later, four of the Courageous 12’s wives talk about their roles in the struggle and about the events that changed St. Petersburg’s history.
“He was [the] one that said, ‘Listen, babe, don’t you worry until you see me worried.’ That was him, and I said, ‘Boy, you don’t know when to worry! It’s time to worry!” Betty Keys, Robert Keys’ wife, remembers.
Betty repeated her husband words amid the laughter of her children, Debra Keys Thompson, and Cheryl Keys. “I would say, ‘I’m waiting, I want you to worry boy!’ The stress he would not put on me, I’m sure he was under a lot of pressure,” Keys said cheerfully.
Betty talked in front of a wall decorated with family pictures, the biggest one of her and her life partner when they were young. Her daughters joined their mother and weren’t afraid to add details to their mom’s memories about the man she married in 1954.
In the living room, the television volume tried to steal the moment when Betty’s mind abandoned the present and flew to 1965 when black officers could only patrol Zone 13 in the city (Gas Plant, Methodist Town, Pepper Town and the beat area or Twenty-Second Street).
“He was looking for a career to go into because before he was a construction worker. So, he decided to try for the police department,” Betty said.
In Robert’s eyes, joining the police department meant a better education for their children and a steady source of income. During that time, his wife worked at Bayfront Medical Center in the lab.
“I worked from 5 a.m. [to] 1:30 or 2 p.m. He would work [in the] evening,” Betty said. “So, someone was always here with the kids.”
Keys remembered when her husband told her that the police department was so segregated that they could only dress in a particular area, apart from the whites. A lot of times some of the officers would put their uniforms on at homes instead of dressing at the station.
At the date of the lawsuit, May 11, 1965, they were confronted with the possibility of losing their careers.
“I’m sure threats came through the department because a lot of them feared for their jobs. I know it was stress for my husband. ‘Oh wow, [he said] we have six children, what if I lose my job?’ But they still persevered and when through with it,” Betty said.
She believes the group’s victory did not benefit only African Americans; it was a victory for society as a whole.
“Every white person is not a prejudiced person. My husband used to tell me ‘I get along with the lieutenants, the sergeants and the captains. They like me.’ He was a sort of pleasant, easy to get along with person; they would call him Bob,” Betty said. “I’m so sorry he didn’t get a chance to further his education as he wanted to, but he did good.”
The Keys also kept their children shielded from the ugliness that was going on.
“We didn’t get a lot of the negativity that they were going trough at that time. We were sheltered. We knew they had meetings at different places, but children weren’t around grown people when they were discussing stuff. We didn’t know a lot, we just knew we were happy, well cared for, [had] food to eat and a nice house to live,” Cheryl said.
The burden, then, belonged to the parents.
“I know that a lot of them wouldn’t be able to do it if it wasn’t for a supportive wife behind them. With seven mouths to feed besides his own, that’s a lot of pressure to think that if he loses his job. She had to be supportive as well and say, ‘Honey, I don’t have a problem with you doing this,’” Debra said. “I’m sure she was nervous too, but my dad wasn’t a person that worried about much.”
Omega Nero’s house was filled with black angel ornaments. She had always considered herself as a rule breaker and a fighter. The woman attended the Courageous 12 meetings to support her husband, Horace Nero, and wasn’t afraid to face the white police officers and talk to them about equality.
“I said [to] some of them, ‘Who do you think you are? You’re not better than we are, our skin colors are different, but God made us all. First of all, you all came over here and took the land from the Indians,’” Omega said.
“When we die you know it’s not going to be just but one hell, but you’re going to burn for eternity. Now those of you who might get to heaven, is there going to be a white heaven and a black heaven? Why can’t we get along and live in perfect harmony?”
In the year of the lawsuit, Omega and Horace’s only daughter was born. That didn’t stop her from supporting the man she was going to live 43 years of her life with.
“They went through very hard times. What made it so bad [was that] they had to take down money from their pockets to pay the lawyer and everything. It was a situation where they didn’t have any backup. They formed their little group and did what they could. Until finally the NAACP took over because they were out of money,” Omega said.
She still remembers the crisp texture of the barbecue ribs sold in Twenty-Second Street South, one of the only areas in which African Americans could walk freely. On the north side of the city at the police station, they had black and white water fountains and different locker rooms. The white men were in charge.
“I was just interested in what was going on because a lot of times he would come home and he would be so disgusted with situations, and I could tell he wasn’t himself some days. So I said, ‘Don’t let those people make you have a heart attack. Trust in God and know that he cares, it’s going to take a little while, but it’s going to be alright, you take my word for it.’ And he did,” Omega said.
And through all the trials and tribulations they made it.
“They said, ‘I wish all the wives had been like you. You stood by your husband.’ When he was depressed it made me depressed for him because of the things that were happening down there. I said, ‘Don’t let that stop you. That’s Satan,’” she said.
“These were the guys who took the chance; they were the ones who paved the way. All of that was because of them, and me!” she laughed. “Boy, if something was wrong I would let them know.”
After the lawsuit, Omega encouraged her spouse to take the sergeant’s exam. “The first time I don’t think he passed it, but I said, ‘don’t give up because that’s what they want you to do.’ I said, ‘You’re going to pass this test.’ Some days he’d be late coming home because he had so much paperwork to do, and when he’d come in he would just be tired, and I would give him comforting words,” Omega said.
She remembers that another one of the black police officers was also applying for the sergeant’s exam too, but his wife didn’t help him.
“I said, ‘You study your book, and then I’m going to drill you on what’s to be asked on the test.’ We would get together, and we would have our school. I would sit down, and I would take them trough the things that they needed to get a drill on,” Omega recalled. “He said, ‘You have the patience of Job; I wish my wife would take the interest as you are with Horace.’”
Horace passed the test! Later, he asked her whether he should take the lieutenants exam.
“I said, ‘It’s up to you. I’m not going to force you to do something you don’t want to do; I’m satisfied where you are.’ He said, ‘I don’t think I want to take it,’ and I said ‘Ok,’” Omega affirmed.
Horace retired after 46 years on the force. Later he went back as a civilian officer. His widow said that the police officers had the job waiting for him.
“They were here every day: ‘Ms. Nero,’ I said ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you going to let sergeant come back to work? Please, please.’ So he stayed off about a month because there were some things I needed to get done and I needed his help. Then he went back,” she said.
Omega affirmed that she wasn’t afraid of anything happening to her partner because she would put God first.
“He more or less died on the job. He had a massive heart attack. He died on a Tuesday. He was supposed to have gone to work, but he called in and said he did not feel up to par because he had a cold and he would be in the following day. At the following day he was at a funeral,” Omega said while clearing her throat. “Police was his life. He loved it, every inch of it. He had always said he was going to work there until he dropped and he did.”
After her husband’s death, what makes Omega proud is that a lot of people haven’t forgotten his kindness and willingness to help. “I got a card from a white officer telling how much he missed that man,” she said.
Despite the accomplishments thus far, she feels there is still room for improvement.
“We as a black race don’t stick firmly together like the white men do. They’ll support what’s going on, but a lot of us say, ‘I don’t want to become involved.’ There needs to be more cohesiveness. We have a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t like the police.’ They do their part, but you need to do yours. If I see something that’s going on wrong I’m not afraid to report it, but some people won’t even do it,” Omega averred.
Catherine King, accompanied by her daughter Deborah Rivera, tried to talk about every achievement of her husband and felt proud that her only child had gone to college.
Her partner, James King, known as “Pop Pop” by the two great-grandsons that he loved so much, was one of the first black police officers in St. Petersburg.
“He liked to work in the community, so he thought that being a police officer would give him a good opportunity to do that. I thought it was a good idea [and] I wanted him to do that because he thought that he would enjoy it,” Catherine said.
But her husband wasn’t the only pioneer of their family. She was among the first African-American women in the city that Southeast Bank (later First Union) hired to work in the frontline.
She got the job thanks to a recommendation letter that her former boss — a white lady who owned a dry meat store and decided to close it after her husband death — gave to her.
“Because the government had to do with banking, some minorities had to be hired, so it was not a lot of black people in banking during that time unless they were doing like cleaning or some other job. I was at customer service, so it was different for me,” Catherine, who also worked as a cashier and as school guard, explained.
In the same way her husband supported her in each one of her jobs, she also supported him when he decided to join the group that— accompanied by then lawyer James B. Sanderlin— filed a lawsuit in the federal court in Tampa.
Catherine remembered that her companion was concerned. His family worried him the most, but both of them were supportive of each other.
“We tried to go on with our lives as usual, but it was different. He didn’t lose his job—that could have happened—but it didn’t. He worked the whole time, and then they finally won. He retired from there and worked 45 years for the city in human resources,” she said.
At that moment, her daughter intervened to highlight that her dad was active in the community. “They always came to him for his advice. He was the type of person that was always trying to help in whichever way he could,” Rivera recalled.
Rivera believes both her parents were great role models.
“Because they were doing the things that they were doing, they were positive examples for me. My mom always worked at bookkeeping and banking, and when I went to school that was my major. I joined a sorority [and] he was in the Masonic lodge. I admired them greatly, and still do,” Rivera said.
At the time of his death, they had been married 49 years, since March 7, 1961. “A lot of people don’t make it that long,” Catherine said with a smile.
Mary Wooten met her husband, Nathaniel Wooten, at Gibbs High School.
“Segregation was all we knew at that time. You knew what areas you were supposed to be in and where you did not go. Especially in the night time hours. It was so ingrained that you just didn’t do it. If you were there at night whoever you worked for would have to bring you to the south side. You couldn’t catch a bus there,” she said. “Blacks weren’t satisfied with that and most of those police officers, the Courageous 12, wanted to make a change.”
She proudly showed the recognition she got from the Jordan Park Nostalgic Association in a ceremony that honored the Courageous 12’s wives in December 2015.
“They joined to try to make a difference and try to let the others know it was wrong. You went to the same academy, the same training, you get the same test, you graded it the same, and when you get on the job you’re limited to what you could do because of segregation,” Mary said. “They could not arrest a white person; they would have to call to the station to get somebody to handle the situation.”
Mary—who worked as a beautician at the time of the lawsuit and had two kids with Nathaniel—said that she felt encouraged when her husband told her about the decision to join the group of men that, without knowing it, would change St. Petersburg’s history.
“All the wives were proud, but not all the blacks were proud. When they first started working they weren’t respected by some blacks as police officers, they weren’t considered real policemen,” Mary said. “You’ll be surprised at the negativity some showed towards them.”
It was a gradual process, but in the end, their determination won out. Mary affirmed that after August 1, 1968, (when the Fifth U.S Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the group) the black officers still had to deal with a lot of problems.
After the lawsuit, Mary recalls that her husband returned home one night and reported somebody following him.
“They [white police] were trying to scare police officers. They knew it wasn’t somebody following him. After he called, it took 45 minutes for someone to respond in little old St. Petersburg. But they were doing what they grew up knowing,” she said.
To her, the wives support helped their partners.
“Some of the guys I’m sure didn’t tell the wives everything to protect them. [But] when your husband is going out there every day or every night to go to work, you couldn’t help to get a little anxious and glad to see him,” Mary said. “Whatever they were trying to do you supported it them because people out there didn’t know what was in their hearts, but we knew.”
She affirmed that the Courageous 12 changed not just the police department but the community. She said some of the whites didn’t know that things were as bad and segregated, as they were at the law enforcement station.
Mary mentioned that when her husband returned home frustrated, she had to know that that dissatisfaction came from the outside, not from their household.
“We black women have to show our men that they are strong and that they are capable by not trying to pull them down. We’ve also been programmed not to look at our men as strong black men. That’s what the white men fear. You get a strong black man and a strong black woman, and you have something going on your hands, and that’s hard to fight,” she said.
Mary considers that African-American women still have to be, in some areas, the stronger person and use their wisdom to hold things together.
“Let your men know he’s strong and nobody can pull him down,” said Mary with the wisdom that comes with age.
Indhira Suero Acosta is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.