SAVANNAH, Ga (WSAV) – Savannah in 1947 was at the forefront of Civil Rights in the Deep South. That’s when nine African-American men integrated the city’s police department.
“Historically we know that the last lynching in Georgia was recorded in 1946 and the next year I mean you have these black officers in place in Savannah,” says Vaughnette Goode-Walker who is an active director and curator at the Rev. Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.
Those black officers were the “Original 9.” They were the first to integrate a police department in the south.
“Well, we went on to change the course of history and all of us had idea that we were doing something for our community,” says John White, the last remaining member from that unit.
Retired Lieutenant John White was a part of the unit. He says it all was possible through the work of Reverend Ralph Mark Gilbert.
“Out of the sixteen, nine of us were selected,” White says.
The men were trained in a temple along West Broad Street for three months. All of their training, White says, had to be in secret.
“They didn’t want the community, the white community to know what was happening. And they didn’t want some of the black community to know what was going on because there was opposition on both sides of the fence,” says White.
Not enough opposition to change city hall. The nine were sworn in by Mayor John Kennedy in 1947.
“Savannah had black police officers before Atlanta and this is, groundbreaking, it also meant the work that had been done in the community had changed things,” says Goode-Walker.
“The movement it couldn’t have happened without all of these players and I have to feel like this was the start of the movement to have those first nine black police officers named and how brave they had to be at that point,” Goode-Walker says.
The officers were assigned to two beats, East and West Broad Street.
“Mr. White was the officer on the beat of West Broad Street, this was the black Wall Street then,” adds Goode-Walker.
White also recalls both streets as home to speakeasies, theaters and clubs.They were the dominant African-American streets for commerce as well as leisure.
Eight of the nine served overseas during World War II. The officers had more training than what was required of most white officers in the Savannah Police Department. Respect though would not come easily
“Certain areas in the black community, they sung a song that they’re will be nine new graves in Laurel Grove Cemetery,” he says adding that on the other side of the coin, “Back then a lot of whites would say, they’d almost come up and want to slap you and you can’t arrest them, but I said I can kill you.”
The unit was that they were not allowed to arrest or ticket a white citizen. Officer White changed all of that.
“I was standing on a Sunday afternoon on Henry and East Broad street when this white individual came up and barely touched a black man’s car.”
White says he called for his white supervisors to handle the ticket, they told him to take it, that led to a court date he’ll never forget.
“Well when we went to court that Monday morning, or Tuesday whatever it was it was filled with white individuals.”
The trial over a simple fender bender led to black officers having the judges approval to approach and arrest white citizens.
“Back then you know there was a lot of hatred, the judge finally filed to probate the sentence, so I believe it was a political thing, but it changed the course of history,” says White adding that,
“We arrested an individual for what they did, not because of who they was, but from what they did and we did not turn our backs to them.”
The political climate, on and off the beat, led to several dismissals and resignations in the unit between 1947 to the mid fifties. But the next line built on what the original nine had started.
“That was the next line and those men were, they already had big shoes to fill, and most of those men who were on this line, they became detectives so that was the next level and with officer White becoming a Lieutenant that’s major,” Goode-Walker adds.
Seventy years later, White is the last remaining member. He has been honored countless of times for serving his community. Recently his police jacket was found and presented to him.
“And 70 years ago, it caused a big change in the world, in the world,” says White.
The Ralph Mark Gilbert civil rights museum is expanding, they plan to include Lieutenant White’s jacket in a new exhibit for the “Original 9”.