By Barney Blakeney
Former Charleston City Councilman Robert Ford was among the most vocal proponents for a Black police chief to lead the Charleston Police Department in 1981 after the death of Chief John Conroy. And last week when current police Chief Greg Mullen announced he will retire in August after leading the department about 10 years, Ford again emerges as a vocal proponent for a Black police chief in the city.
When Reuben Greenberg retired in 2005, many said the city never again would have a Black police chief. Greenberg was the first in its more than 300 year history. Throughout that history, the city’s population overwhelmingly was Black. Even beyond slavery when Blacks in the city outnumbered whites often more than 3-1, the role of police officers was reserved almost exclusively for whites. Blacks served as officers and police chiefs in adjacent communities such as Maryville and Mount Pleasant, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that Charleston hired Black police officers.
The administration of Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. installed in 1976 ushered in an era of diversity during which many Blacks occupied executive level positions. Notably, departments directed by Blacks included the Clerk of Council, Department of Finance, the Recreation Department and the Department of Housing and Development. Greenberg became police chief in 1982.
Ford said that diversity occurred because of the city’s affirmative action ordinance implemented under the Riley administration. Riley was elected with the support of the Black voters and he used that ordinance to repay that support. In more recent times, affirmative action has come under attack and many of the gains achieved under it are being lost. In a 300-year-old city that historically has been among the nation’s most racially diverse, only recently was a Black person named chief of police, he said.
“If you don’t ask for anything, you won’t get anything,” Ford said. “We fought to get a portrait of Denmark Vesey hung in the old Gaillard Auditorium. It’s not hanging in the new auditorium. If we don’t ask for a Black police chief now, it won’t happen any time in the near future. Diversity in the city is declining and it’s going to continue.”
Charleston Dist. 3 Councilman James Lewis is the longest serving among African American members, having been elected in 1995. He’s served during the administrations of both Greenberg and Mullen. “Whether the next police chief is Black or white, if he’s capable of doing the job, that’s all that matters,” he said.
Ultimately the decision to hire the next police chief will be Mayor John Tecklenburg’s. “We had the opportunity to hire a Black fire chief in 2012 under Mayor Riley, but he chose Chief Karen Brack.” Brack resigned in March. “We may have that opportunity again. I think either the new police chief or fire chief should be Black,” Lewis said candidly.
Dist. 6 Councilman William Dudley Gregorie noted to overtly seek a Black person to fill either job is illegal. “That’s discrimination,” he said. “What would we (Black citizens) say if they said they wanted to hire a white police chief?” he countered. So should the city hire a Black police chief? That the city hires a qualified police chief is paramount, Gregorie said. But he favors the idea of hiring a Black chief for a number of reasons. “When you peel back the layers of the city’s employment, you see that the majority of Black employees are at the bottom,” he said.
Ford said, “Those who feel that race shouldn’t matter should ask themselves why we don’t have a qualified Black as police chief.”