Tuscaloosa Police Department Honors Legacy of First Black Officers
Civic and law enforcement leaders gathered at the Tuscaloosa Fraternal Order of Police Lodge to honor the first ten Black officers to serve the Tuscaloosa Police Department Thursday afternoon.
The ceremony recognized the difficult trail the officers blazed at a time when neither the department nor the community at large supported desegregating the police force as well as the opportunities they created for minorities in TPD going forward.
The ceremony was led by Deputy Chief Severn "Sebo" Sanders, who was promoted in 2020 to become the department's first head of Community Policing.
Speakers included current chief Brent Blankley, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and Steve Anderson, the first Black police chief in TPD history, who retired from the force in 2019 after 10 years in that role.
"It's never easy being the first of anything, we all know that," Anderson told a crowd that included dozens of current and former police officers, city council members and the families of some of the officers honored Thursday. "And being one of the first Black officers to come to the police department in 1966, I can't believe what that feeling must have been like for these officers."
"To be a part of an organization that treated you as a second-class citizen, to be a part of an organization that didn't really want you to be a part of that organization but to have the opportunity to do something that so many other people had already had the opportunity to do — that's what these first 10 officers had an opportunity for," Anderson said. "They had an opportunity to actually serve their community and they did it with a lot of pride. It didn't matter that their community didn't really care about them and it didn't really matter that their community treated them like second-class citizens, none of that mattered to these individuals. All that mattered to them was that they got to wear the uniform and they had the ability to serve their community. They were trailblazers."
Those officers were listed on a commemorative plaque that was unveiled Thursday and will be displayed at Tuscaloosa Police headquarters in the days to come to recognize the department's complex history and how that history led to the TPD that exists today.
Maddox recalled an early challenge during his first term as mayor, when he inherited a lawsuit filed by three of the first Black officers TPD ever hired — Willie Bies, Herbert Harris and Jimmie L. Gosa, who were hired in 1966 but denied access to the city's police and fire pension fund.
Maddox said in he, former city council president Harrison Taylor and members of the city's legal team discussed the matter with a judge in Birmingham in 2011 and ultimately decided that although the city was legally allowed to deny the officers access to the pension fund, to do so was morally wrong. The city settled the long-active suit shortly after.
"We settled the lawsuit forever and we were able to right the wrongs of history," Maddox said. "Officer Bies, Officer Harris and Officer Gosa deserved better from the city and for the pain that the city caused them, I apologize on behalf of the entire city and the history of the city for that action."
"If we are going to be outstanding moving forward, we must honor the pioneers and heroes of our past and let their legacies serve as an inspiration in everything that we do," Maddox continued. "To the friends and family members of the 10 officers that served this city and forged new ground under very difficult circumstances, thank you, thank you, thank you. May God continue to bless each of you, bless your families and protect and keep safe our men and women of the Tuscaloosa Police Department."
The men and women honored Thursday included the following officers:
- Matthew Horton
- Isaiah Lavender
- Willie Bies, Jr.
- Herbert Harris
- Willie Nell Davis
- Charlie Avery
- Daniel Mack
- Robert Bailey
- Charles Greene, Jr.
- Emanuel Williams