Fred Lee Jr. stands in front of the statue of his father, Tallahassee’s first Black police officer, which resides at the corner of Macomb and Georgia streets, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Photo: Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat)
Take yourself back. Back over 60 years. Back in time to when Tallahassee was smaller, more in tune to the century before than the 20th, back to a time when on the surface, things were very different — but which, in some ways, have stayed the same.
It is summer. Hot. But in Frenchtown, the area to the west of the Governor’s Mansion, the section that included various neighborhoods and enclaves like Springfield and Griffin Heights, populated mostly by African Americans, there, things were humming.
Long-time residents smile as they recall the music that poured into the streets from the El Dorado and the Red Bird Cafe, clubs on the famous “Chitlin’ Circuit.” There, Black entertainers like Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, Cab Calloway and Little Richard would perform.
Ed Duffee, 82, a retired attorney whose family home on Carolina Street was later demolished to create a holding pond as revitalization proceeded, recalls the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night club scene in the Frenchtown “entertainment district.” Here music could be heard reverberating along the streets until the wee hours, everybody dressed to the nines — and feeling good.
But, as things will when a “half-pint” of anything alcoholic is involved, or when that extra trip to Crump’s package store was one too many, things could occasionally “go south.” At the time, the only policing, and “there wasn’t much of it,” says long-time resident, Etta Crump Jefferson, was conducted by white police. And according to many residents, the interactions usually weren’t pleasant.
“Things didn’t always go right with the police then,” recalls Althemese Barnes, Director of the Riley House Museum, then a young girl and resident of the Springfield enclave in Frenchtown. “The white police were mean,” she remembers. Normally, Frenchtown’s residents were happy to stay within their own community, she says, a place where “we had everything we wanted.”
But one time her family had driven to see relatives on the far side of town. On the way back, her father made a wrong turn and immediately a white police officer turned on his lights and pulled them over, running his flashlight across the faces of the children.
Barnes’ father had left his license at home, but the policeman had a solution: give him $25 and he’d forget the infraction. “My mother only had $19, which she offered him.” With relief, they were grateful he’d accepted the bribe. It is likely that Barnes’ parents were aware that from 1900-1930, Leon County led the state in the number of lynchings of Black men, the most recent in 1937, when two men were taken from the old jail.
What was needed, many thought, were policemen of their own. Beginning in 1947, the Inter-Racial Ministerial Alliance had been lobbying the mayor to hire Black policemen. After five years of trying, the Negro Inter-Civic Council was permitted to screen candidates for three positions for African American officers. It was a far cry from the way things had been just after the Civil War when from 1871-1877 there had been an all-Black police force in Tallahassee.
But by 1885, the Florida State Constitution had been changed to deny the vote to African Americans and to permit only white men on the police force. But almost 70 years later, a nascent awakening would find authorities willing to invite a few men to become the first African American policeman of the modern era to join the Tallahassee Police Department.
And in 1952 one man’s name in particular, Fred Douglas Lee, one whom the Frenchtown community had perhaps longed for all along, was immediately “thrown into the ring.”
“I recall the Rev. C.K. Steele, Dr. Gilbert Porter, and Father Brooks from St. Michaels coming to my house, sitting around the kitchen table and asking my father to accept the nomination to go on the police force,” says Fred Lee Jr., a retired auto executive and local vocal performer.
It would take the leaders three tries before Fred Sr. accepted, but the quiet man, whom everyone called a “gentle giant” seemed to have all the attributes for the job he was to accept.
Fred Lee Jr. recalls that his father was a “presence.” “He was a big man, 6’2” and 267 pounds when he passed,” says Lee. “With arms and hands that were huge. He was a man of few words. A man who never raised his voice. He was calm, soft-spoken, and had the effect of settling down every situation he came in contact with. He could step into the middle of a knife fight, tell them to stop… and they would.”
Born on the all-Black island of Red Fish Point near Panama City, and one of 14 children for whom Bay County would only offer up to an 8th grade education, Fred Lee came to Tallahassee and put himself through Lincoln High, becoming an All-State football player.
He was later a cook for Leon County schools, a carpenter, a father of three children, and a deacon at the Philadelphia Primitive Baptist Church, but community leaders saw in him something else that a good community policeman would need — the ability to treat everyone with respect even as he led them in directions they may not have initially wanted to go.
Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, for 10 years Chief of the Tallahassee Police Department, says that Fred Lee, who died in 1973, is a “legend” to the older officers.
“He had the ability to get voluntary compliance. Often, he would talk to someone rather than call for an arrest. He would put an intoxicated person in a cab and send them home. He would go talk to the parents of boys on the brink of trouble,” McNeil said. “He was a de-escalator. And he was able to navigate the racial circumstances of the time… a time when most white officers didn’t look on having African American counterparts as a good thing.”
And there were indeed obstacles to Fred Lee and the other two men hired, Fred Golden and Clarence Mitchell, doing their jobs. While white officers had their own patrol cars, the Black officers were only assigned to walk their beats and were not allowed to make arrests.
Instead, says Etta Jefferson, who was a barber in a shop across the street, “they had this light pole where they’d have to handcuff somebody, then use a call box to call for a white policeman to do the arrest. Sometimes it took 40 minutes or an hour for anybody to come.”
There were the other hurts, the ones that Fred Lee Jr. feels his father held inside for the 20 years he faithfully served. “I kind of feel like my father was exploited. He trained many, many white officers, but they would be promoted over him. Only just before he died at 56, was he about to be promoted to Lieutenant.”
And yet, he says Fred Sr. was never bitter. “Though he was too humble to say it, I think he was proud of all he had done and the way he did it.”
Sheriff McNeil agrees. The prime-mover behind a life-size bronze statue of Fred Lee Sr. flanked by two squabbling children about to make up, McNeil says that he empathized with Lee’s challenges when he became police chief, “though he had more than I have.” Mostly, McNeil sees Fred Lee as an officer who served with both grace and dignity.
And this is what Fred Lee Jr. hopes will evolve from the current social climate. He hopes that the kindness, empathy, willingness to redirect rather than restrain that he saw in his father will become the “new” way of policing — maybe even the new way all of us can be together in the world — with respect, an even gaze, and a gentle voice.
Marina Brown can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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