SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The Savannah community is honoring someone who’s described as a life mentor, leader and hero. On Wednesday, the city unveiled Lt. John White Avenue as a way to celebrate a man who helped pave the way for many in Savannah’s Black community.
“It’s amazing to me to see a togethering of these people here to wish me good luck,” White said.
A permanent marker now sits on the corner of Waters and Bouhan Avenues to honor Lt. White and the footprints he’s ingrained in Savannah during his 37 years of service.
“It had to be somebody to be the first,” Mayor Van Johnson said. “It had to be somebody to break through that glass ceiling or in many cases, that brick wall.”
Lt. White is the last living member of the Original Nine Black police officers who integrated the Savannah Police Department back in 1947. The 97-year-old was the first of the group to be sworn in, also making him the first Black law enforcement officer to be sworn in in Georgia.
“There was several people — and I say several people — who made a comment that there’s gonna be nine more graves in Laurel Groves cemetery,” White said.
White also served with the Montford Point Marines, the first Black men to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is credited with breaking barriers for many Black Savannahians — among them, his oldest daughter.
“My father became a police officer at a time when the culture at that time had no confidence in African-Americans to hold certain positions,” White’s daughter, Cheryl Coakley, said. “And at that time, he opened the door for people like me and many others like me in law enforcement.”
Coakley followed in her father’s footsteps, joining the Miami-Dade Corrections Department. Current Savannah police officers were also at Wednesday’s ceremony to show their respect for White.
District 3 Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan proposed the street dedication in early October and it unanimously passed through council the following day.
“Mr. White is the last living person of color who was selected to protect and serve in a time in our collective history when it was not the best of times,” Wilder-Bryan said. “He served this community with a standard that has not been surpassed. It is my pleasure and duty to keep his name on the lips of our young people who need heroes.”
Leaders said the street dedication is meant to carry on the lieutenant’s legacy for generations to come.
“Because of him and the other eight who are no longer with us, we’re able to have an African-American police chief,” Mayor Johnson said. “We’re able to have folks all over from various areas and to include an African-American mayor.”