Ceremony to honor black officers

Early police recruits recall their struggles

April 17, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

George Phelps Jr. loves to quote the top police official of the 1960s who said there would never be a black officer in Anne Arundel - especially on occasions like tonight's ceremony honoring the African-Americans who have served on the police force.

"I'll never forget those words," says Phelps, a former deputy sheriff in the county, smiling at the thought of the event paying tribute to the black officers in the county, past and present.

Those expected to attend the ceremony at 7 p.m. at Anne Arundel Community College include the highest-ranking African-American in the department's history - Athena M. Baker, promoted to acting captain about six months ago by Chief P. Thomas Shanahan.

Others are:

Officer Charles Ravenell, president of Black Police Officers Association of Anne Arundel County - an organization that could not have existed 40 years ago.

Norfleet P. Barnes and Reginald Harris - whose hirings integrated the county police force in 1965.

Cpl. Elinor Foote, the first black female officer.

Tyrone Powers, a former state trooper who is director of the Institute of Criminal Justice, Legal Studies and Public Service at the college, will deliver the keynote address - he, too, African-American.

They remember the struggle - the overt racism and silent treatment.

"You have to look at the past before you can move forward," says Phelps, hoping the county's civil rights pioneers will inspire a new minority-recruiting effort. "I want it to be a call to conscience."

Of 666 officers on the police force, 42 are African-American, according to Ravenell. Less than a dozen are Hispanic or Asian-American.

"We need a diverse police department to serve a diverse community," says Ravenell, one of the organizers of tonight's event, themed, "Lest We Forget."

Recruiting was necessary, even at the beginning.

Dr. Aris T. Allen, a prominent black physician and politician, recruited Barnes to become one of the first black officers. Allen recommended Barnes because he had served as a military police officer and Army photographer.

"You had to be overqualified, especially if you were black," said Barnes, who served on the county's force for nearly four years before becoming a photography supervisor with Baltimore's police department.

Barnes remembers telling a joke to a secretary as they rode up an elevator at the county police academy. "The next day there was a notice posted saying recruits weren't to ride in the elevator. I laughed about that all the way home. It was so ridiculous."

Asked what he advises this generation of officers and those considering a career in the field, Barnes says, "Keep your sense of hope and your sense of humor."

Barnes' name will be among those on the perpetual plaque - listing every black who has served on the county police force - that will be unveiled tonight and displayed at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.

Phelps - who became the county's first black law enforcement officer when he was hired as a deputy sheriff - was involved in that celebration as well.

"Things didn't happen overnight," says Phelps, who remembers walking down Main Street in the 1950s with Steny H. Hoyer, now a veteran Democratic congressman. "There were reports that Hoyer was being held hostage by a black man impersonating a police officer," Phelps says, laughing.

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