Four fearless Black officers filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the Tampa Police Department for discrimination. Officers Frank Gray, Rufus Lewis, James Dukes, and Clarence Nathan played a pivotal role in the advancement of many deserving Black officers. When the EEOC investigation was completed in 1976, the City of Tampa was cited for numerous violations of discriminations. The findings were recognized by Mayor Bill Poe, who signed an agreement to rectify the problems.
Because the Fearless Four took a stand for the rights of others, the City implemented fairer practices and policies to ensure all minority officers and employees citywide would have have access to equal opportunities as their White counterparts. As the department implemented these new standards, Black officers began to slowly see progress in hiring, training, promotions, specialty agreements, and leadership.
Today, the contributions of the Fearless Four could be seen throughout City government. Minority employees have experienced a myriad of benefits diversity brings to the organization and community.
Moments in History
During the early 1900s, the few Black officers that were employed by the department had to endure personal and professional insults and discrimination. Among the earliest Black employees were so-called “negro spotters,” who were little more than paid informants. Some, however, rose to the level of full employment as patrol officers. These early officers included Peter Brown, Joe Robinson, Pearl McAden, Jesse Armwood, and Joe Nance. They could only patrol Black neighborhoods and could not arrest White suspects.
Even later into the 20th century, Black officers could not drive police vehicles, they had to stand in the back of the room during roll calls, and could not eat in the cafeteria nor use the same restrooms or water fountains as their White counterparts. They were often not addressed by name and instead were called “Boy” or other insulting nicknames. Perhaps most degrading, they received their pay in brown paper bags from the backdoor of the police station.
1921 - 1956
These African-American officers were employed with the Tampa Police Department prior to the establishment of the Civil Service Examination in 1956: Jesse Armwood, John Ponce, Victor Buchanan, Oscar Ayala, Robert Cleveland, Leroy Haygood, Romeo Cole, Sr, Whaley Hall, Hampton McCullough, Willie Bexley, Theodore Whittaker, Samuel Brazelton, Judge Timmons, Willie Massey, LaMarcus Larry, Joe Nance, James Adams, James Ransom, and John Lane.
Detective Joe Nance was the first Black officer to die in the line of duty. While traveling to Lakeland, Florida (to interview a witness in a case) Detective Nance was forced off the road by a vehicle and seriously injured. He later developed pneumonia and died from his injuries.
The first group of Black officers to pass the Civil Service Examination were Sammie Philmore, Samuel Jones, Jr., Herman Doby, Elijah Dixon, and Clifford Parramore.
Officers Philmore and Jones were the first Black officers promoted to Detective in the Homicide and Robbery Divisions. Although promoted to a higher rank, they continued to receive the pay of a police officer. They were both promoted to the rank of Sergeant in the 1970s.
Willie Massey becomes the first Black police officer to retire under the City of Tampa Police and Fire Pension. Black officer had previously been barred from joining the pension program.
Elijah J. Dixon was the only Black police officer above the rank of patrolman. He was assigned as a Juvenile Detective in the Crime Prevention Bureau.
Thelma Harris Alford originally filed a complaint in 1972 with the National Organization of Women because applicants had to be 5’8” in height to become a police office (Alford was 5’7). She benefited from the EEOC complaint and was compensated. When Alford was hired, she became the first Black female to wear the police uniform.
Curtis Lane became the first Black officer to rise to the rank of major and then colonel.
Elijah Dixon became the first Black promoted to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant and reached the rank of captain.
The Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers (ABLE) was established on July 22, 1982 by a group of Black officers to influence equality in law enforcement. Lieutenant Romeo Cole became the organization’s first President.
Bennie Holder became the first Black Chief of Police, a position he served for ten years.
Gilbertina Wright was the first Black female promoted to the rank of lieutenant, captain, major, deputy chief and the first female to be promoted to Assistant Chief of Police.