LI's first African-American cops made history seeking 'steady' work

Richard Robertson at his Huntington home where he Richard Robertson at his Huntington home where he was raised March 27, 2014. Robertson was the first black policeman on the Huntington Police force. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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When Richard H. Robertson, Alex Richardson and Julius Pearse became police officers, the civil rights movement was still in its infancy and black cops were a rare sight on Long Island.

Decades later, they are among a dwindling number of surviving police pioneers who helped integrate local police forces from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Since then, county and local police departments have made strides in hiring minorities. But, today, more than a half-century later, their numbers still lag behind their percentages in the population, and Nassau and Suffolk county forces remain under federal monitoring to diversify their ranks.

These early officers weren't activists or intentional trailblazers. The majority were simply military veterans and working men looking for a steady job after stints as truck drivers, laborers and hospital aides. While they encountered some resistance, even overt racism, when they donned their uniforms, they also found collegiality and satisfaction in doing the job well.

Robertson, 90, the first black officer when he joined the Huntington Town police force in 1949, said he was most proud of "the respect I got from people that never thought I would last, and then came up to me when I retired to shake my hand and say I'd done a good job."

To help preserve those memories, Julius Pearse, 80, who integrated Freeport's village force in 1962, is collecting photos and biographical information for a display on Long Island's early black officers for the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead, where he volunteers as manager. He hopes to finish it in time for next year's Black History Month observances in February.

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"They were trailblazers who proved to the police departments that they could police and do it without prejudice; they could go into any neighborhood and enforce the law without causing any havoc," Pearse said, noting fears that whites wouldn't accept black officers.

They did their jobs professionally and "with dignity," he said. "And that's why they should be remembered."

These early hires drew on a pool of military veterans at a time of changing racial attitudes and tightened enforcement of civil service employment practices "that gave a more objective test instead of patronage appointments," said Thomas Smith, curator of the Suffolk Police Museum in Yaphank.

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Dennis Ulmer was still serving in World War II in the Pacific in 1944 when he was hired by the Nassau County Police Department. Credited as the department's first African-American officer, he joined another black patrolman, Leonardo Diggs, when he actually began work in 1946.

About that time another World War II vet, Charles Goady, became the first black officer in Suffolk, on the Babylon police force. The pioneers continued with Robertson in Huntington in 1949, John Thomas in the Village of Brightwaters and Cecil L. Rich in the Town of Brookhaven, both in 1951, Pearse in Freeport in 1962, Ronald Pinckney in Port Washington in 1963, and Lawrence Giles in Glen Cove soon after.

Ulmer, Goady, Thomas, Rich and Pinckney are deceased.

Departments integrated over the years, and the numbers of minorities edged up, but slowly: By 1953, 15 blacks were on the Nassau County force, and by 1960, 10 in Huntington. Long Beach hired its first two black officers -- Simon Portee and Alonzo Merkerson -- in 1966. But after 1968, it would be four decades until the city hired more African-Americans.

Police departments have said low turnover and competitive exams limited the numbers of minorities. But when recruitment efforts were strengthened, the numbers of minorities seeking police jobs also increased.

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Yet long-standing mistrust between minority communities and police also had an effect. Robertson said he'd go to schools to interest young black men in police work, and be told " 'They're the enemy,' " he recalled. "I said anyone willing to pay you $100,000 a year isn't the enemy."

These pioneers crossed old boundaries of mistrust for the chance at steady jobs. Alex Richardson, 83, and, in 1954, Huntington's fourth black officer, said, "The opportunity was there and I grabbed it."

Fletcher Baldwin, 81, of East Moriches, said he came "from a family where there are two kinds of jobs: part-time jobs and steady jobs." He was fresh out of the military when he saw a newspaper ad for a police exam in 1958, and decided to take it: "That's what caught my attention: It was a steady job, a civil service job."

Baldwin suspected that somehow "hanky-panky" would prevent him from getting the job, but took the test anyway and scored 19th out of 500 applicants, he said. He joined the Brookhaven Town police in 1959, one of three blacks on the force.

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He suspects it took him longer than others to make detective, but spent the last 14 years of his police career in the Seventh Squad detectives unit of the Suffolk County Police Department in Southold. As far as encountering prejudice, he said, "maybe behind my back but not to me; in conversations everyone was quite nice, apart from a few incidents."

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Racial incidents did occur, other retired officers recalled, even though most simply shouldered whatever unspoken and overt racism they endured as rookies when segregation was still legal in some states.

Robertson said some of his new colleagues refused to partner with him at first. Beverly Thomas, John Thomas' widow, said he responded to a police call and was greeted at a door by a woman who said, "I called for a police officer, not a [expletive]," using a racial slur. He stayed and finished the assignment.

Thomas Scott joined the Hempstead Village police in 1952, and became its first black department chief in 1973. But for his first three years on the force, his daughter Barbara said, her father was barred from joining the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. When he passed the chief's exam, the village created the position of a civilian commissioner, giving that person authority over the department chief for the first time, she said.

Her late father "was a very proud man and he kept his head very high," she said. "For the most part he said he just loved police work."

Ulmer, who rose to detective lieutenant before retiring from the Nassau County police in 1969, successfully pushed for the creation of its community relations, now community affairs bureau, and mentored other black officers, including Pearse, as he dealt with hostile comments and racial jokes from some of his new colleagues in Freeport.

"He said, 'Ignore them. Put plugs in your ears,' " Pearse recalled from his office at the African American Museum in Hempstead, where as the volunteer president, he works alongside his wife, Joyetta, its executive director.

"If it wasn't for Dennis Ulmer, I don't think I would have made it."

Ulmer, who died in 1994, was honored in 2010 in a ceremony at the Nassau Police Museum, where his service revolver, patrolman's badge and photo were put on display.

After the forces of five western Suffolk towns merged into the Suffolk County Police Department in 1960, the picture began to change, Richardson said. "It was a larger police department and you didn't just have African-Americans, you had Hispanics and Asians; the ethnicity just spread throughout," he said. "Now you were seeing everybody who was in the neighborhoods, and you had young ladies come in too."

By 2000, Nassau County had appointed its first black police commissioner, William Willett, who had risen through the ranks after joining the Nassau County Police Department in 1953, becoming one of the first black beat patrolmen in Garden City Park. He died in 2003 at age 71.

Many of these early pioneers became not only accepted, but admired, members of their forces. Retired Port Washington Chief William Kilfoil, 62, said Ronald Pinckney, who in 1963 became the force's -- and the North Shore's -- first black officer was also one of its most popular and well-respected.

"He was a cop's cop," said Kilfoil, who retired last year from the force after 39 years -- more than 20 as chief. But it was Pinckney's "uncanny knack for getting along with people and defusing volatile situations" that stood out.

"We'd say, that when Ronny got there" on a domestic dispute call, "the couple would be contemplating a divorce; when he left they were planning a second honeymoon."

Beverly Thomas, 83, who had encouraged her husband to take the civil service test in 1951 despite his initial skepticism, said he'd overcome obstacles but didn't dwell on them. "I say he was the Jackie Robinson of the police force, and like the things Jackie Robinson went through, he went through things on the police force," she said.

Thomas transferred to the Town of Islip Police Department in 1955, and the Suffolk County force when it formed in 1960, making detective and being named "Policeman of the Year" for rescuing two people from a deadly house fire that killed five others.

Over time he became "very good friends with a lot of the police officers," white and black, said his son Gordon, 59. When he died in 2010 at age 84, they crowded his wake and a motorcycle escort accompanied the family from Bay Shore to Calverton National Cemetery.

"You would think the president was in town," he said. "There were about 50 cars all down the center of the LIE, no other cars on the road all the way out to Calverton."

He smiled. "I'll never forget that."

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