By Norma Adams-Wade
Let’s close out the year 2020 with a historical tribute to Dallas Black police officers. I thought about these early Black officers when I ran across an old news clip about the on-again/off-again closing of the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail at 106 W. Commerce St.
The Dawson jail stands right before one leaves the downtown Dallas area to cross the Trinity River Bridge leading to Oak Cliff. Dawson also is across from the Lew Sterrett Justice Center that is behind the Frank Crowley Court Building at Commerce Street and Riverfront Boulevard. I was just thinking…and wondering how many people today know or remember that that easily-ignored jail facility is named after one of Dallas’ original Black police officers—Jesse R. Dawson. He holds a position of honor with four other groundbreaking Black men, former World War II soldiers who passed the entrance exam and finally were allowed to join the Dallas force in 1947 and ’48, a few years after World War II ended. Whites on and off the force had strongly resisted but eventually were overruled.
In 1947, the first two officers to join were Benjamin Thomas Jr and Lee G. Brotherton Sr. (who became a Muslim and changed his name to L. G. Bilal). Dawson joined in 1948 along with William Starks and Charles Thompson. The Black officers patrolled the historic Black enclave State-Thomas neighborhood just north of downtown Dallas. They were not allowed to arrest White folk. As racial restrictions slowly began to thin out over the years, the pioneer Black officers began to share their hard-fought experiences in media interviews. I interviewed Dawson for a Black History Month series in The Dallas Morning News in the 1980s. Dawson said this:
“We had people in our own race who didn’t want us. We bowed our necks and did the job. We needed a job and enjoyed what we were doing. I was just determined to make it.” Dawson retired in 1976 and later became the first Black elected constable in Dallas, succeeding Rev. George Brewer who had been appointed in 1975. Margaret McGee was Dallas’ first Black female officer. She arrived in Dallas in 1972, began looking for work, and applied at Dallas City Hall. She discovered there were no Black female officers and that year became the first. She overcame resistance as both a female and Black person but remembers when attitudes began to soften. “We respect each other’s ability now more than when I first came,” she told me in a 1980s interview.
The saddest, most enraging and yet heroic Dallas Black police pioneer was William McDuff. Journalist Erin Blakemore tells his heartbreaking story in a 2016 online edition of smithsonianmag.com. McDuff was appointed as a “special officer” in 1896 when racism was stifling, the economy was depressed, and the Ku Klux Klan was prominent. He lived modestly in a shack in the blighted Stringtown area that became known as Deep Ellum. He served only two months before he was murdered in a vicious and fatal attack in his home on Christmas night, December 25, 1896.
Journalist Blakemore reported that McDuff had reprimanded two young Black males for “laughing during a debate” at an AME church in his community where he was hired to keep order. Witnesses said the young men came to his home on Christmas night, dragged him outside, called him racist names, and shot him between the eyes. He died instantly. The young men were convicted and went to prison. Police authorities ignored neighborhood pleas to replace McDuff. More than 50 years passed before the subsequent Black officers were hired in 1947.
Black officers made slow but meaningful inroads later, including milestones of retired executive assistant police chief Don Stafford in 1960, assistant chief Shirley Gray in 1972, Police Chiefs David Brown in 1983 and U. Renee Hall in 2017 to name only a few. I hope to tell more about them in the future.
Norma Adams-Wade is a veteran, award-winning Journalist, a graduate of UT-Austin and Dallas native. She is also one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and was inducted into the NABJ Hall of Fame.