A story of patient endurance

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.

On the upward-swinging curve, in 1976:

Expanding on the travails listed above:

On Jan. 12, 1948, the day Officer Thomas joined the force, and for years afterward, he could not attend roll call in the squad room: His attendance was taken in the hall.

He could arrest only black people. Apprehending white suspects, he could merely detain them until a white officer was dispatched to make the arrest.

He patrolled his beat — a half-dozen-mile-wide swath spanning largely black neighborhoods — twice a day, alone, on foot: The department long refused to issue him a squad car.

“He told me,” Chief McClelland said, “that the very first time he was given permission to drive a squad car, when the sergeant gave him the keys, his instructions were: ‘You better make sure that you don’t wreck it, but if you do’ — and he referred to him by the N-word — ‘you better pin your badge to the seat and don’t come back.’ ”

For years to come, to spare the car, and his job along with it, Officer Thomas drove it to his beat, parked it, locked it and, as he had before, pounded the pavement on foot.

For talking to the meter maid, who had asked him to accompany her past a line of wolf-whistling construction workers as she made her rounds, Officer Thomas was fined a day’s pay.

… To the end of his career, … Officer Thomas did not eat in the department cafeteria. If in his early years he could not set foot there, in his later ones he would not — a small, telling act of free will.

No doubt Thomas saw the job as (in some sense) a good one, providing a better salary and a better future than other jobs he might have found; you just had a swallow a lot of shit uncomplainingly.

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