From yesterday’s NYT, on the front page, an obit by the estimable Margalit Fox, “Edward Thomas, Policing Pioneer Who Wore a Burden Stoically, Dies at 95”, which raised conflicting feelings in me. Here’s the beginning, with the bits that roused me boldfaced:
When Edward Thomas joined the Houston Police Department in 1948, he could not report for work through the front door.
He could not drive a squad car, eat in the department cafeteria or arrest a white suspect.
Walking his beat, he was once disciplined for talking to a white meter maid.
Officer Thomas, who died on Monday at 95, was the first African-American to build an eminent career with the Houston Police Department, one that endured for 63 years. By the time he retired four years ago, two months shy of his 92nd birthday, he had experienced the full compass of 20th-century race relations.
His days were suffused with the pressure to perform perfectly, lest he give his white supervisors the slightest excuse to fire him — and he could be fired, he knew, for a transgression as small as not wearing a hat.
They were also suffused with the danger he faced in the field, knowing that white colleagues would not come to his aid.
In 2011, when Officer Thomas retired with the rank of senior police officer, he was “the most revered and respected officer within the Houston Police Department,” the organization said in announcing his death, at his home in Houston.
On July 27, two weeks before he died, the department renamed its headquarters in Officer Thomas’s honor.
On the one hand, you can feel pleased at how far race relations have come (though you can be sure that fellow officers referred to him as a nigger in the old days, and that some still do). On the other hand, the history is simply appalling, a tale of constant unyielding indignities.