When Edward Thomas joined the Houston police department as a patrolman in 1948, he wasn't allowed to enter through the building's front door and would use a service entrance in the back. That was one of several indignities that Thomas, the only African-American member of the force for years, had to deal with everyday.
Now, the building's named after him and all the officers use the entrance he did.
Thomas died last week at the age of 95, after retiring from the force in 2011—he was a cop for 63 years.
When Thomas joined the force, he was assigned to walk—literally, because it'd be a while before he was given a squad car—the beat in black neighborhoods. He wasn't allowed to arrest white suspects—he could only hold them until a white officer arrived—and he'd have to take the bus if he collared anyone. For the first few years he was on the force, he wasn't allowed to sit in during roll call; he'd have to wait in the hallway. He wore his hat until the day he retired—long after the hat was no longer mandatory—because when he started he could have been fired for not wearing it.
When Thomas was finally issued a squad car, he was reportedly told that he shouldn't bother coming back to work if anything happened to the car. He was referred to by racial slurs by fellow officers and superiors, even after the Civl Rights Act was passed. He was once fined a day's pay because he escorted a meter maid away from a group of rowdy, harassing construction workers.
For years Thomas wasn't accepted by his fellow members of the force, or by the African-American community in Houston. But he kept going to work everyday.
“He had to depend on the relationship that he had with people in the community to help him if he got into a fight with a suspect or had to arrest a suspect,” Councilman C.O. Bradford, Houston's second African-American police chief told The New York Times. “He had no one to call: He could not put out an assist-the-officer call. Today, you press a button and all the help comes. But back then it wasn’t like that, and he was by himself.
“The black community did not want Mr. Thomas because he was the police, and the police did not want Mr. Thomas because he was black.”
Today the police department in Houston is 53-percent minority officers and the current police chief, Charles McClelland, is African-American. "He was the Jackie Robinson of the Houston Police Department,” McClelland told The Times. "We all owe Mr. Thomas a debt of gratitude. Not just black officers and Hispanic officers, but gays, lesbians. None of those things would have been possible if someone had not endured that harsh dramatic treatment.”
On July 27, Houston PD renamed police headquarters after Thomas in a formal ceremony. He wore a hat.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org