Richmond honors first African American police sergeant
on February 9, 2011
When Douglas Ellison made his mark on Richmond history, Martin Luther King Jr. was just 17-years-old. Harry Truman had not yet desegregated America’s armed forces, and Rosa Parks hadn’t refused to concede her seat.
But the then-21-year-old Ellison, a strapping local man who still held dreams of becoming a prize-fighter, was poised to make his own mark.
On Nov. 1, 1946, Ellison was hired and sworn in as a Richmond police officer, becoming only the second African-American to hold that post in the city.
“He was so proud,” said his wife, Telethia Ellison, 85. “There would be tough times over the years, but he always kept his head up, always kept up a smile.”
Ellison, a lifelong Richmond resident who served on the police force for 27 years, died in 2006 at the age of 81. His wife, two sons and several grandchildren still reside in Richmond.
For his years of service and his trailblazing accomplishments, Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus presented family members with a letter of commendation and honorary police patches during a Jan. 28 ceremony at the chief’s office.
“(Ellison’s) choice of service to the community, at a time when the department did not even come close to reflecting the diversity of the city, demonstrated his strong character and leadership qualities,” Magnus said, addressing Ellison’s son Robert, 64, and granddaughter Shulanda, 45, who brought her fiancé, Frank Jones.
Following the reading, Capt. Mark Gagan gave the Ellisons a tour of the department, noting several historic photos of Douglas Ellison that hang on the walls today.
“It really makes you proud,” Shulanda Ellison said, gazing at a black and white photo of her grandfather. “I want to show my grandchildren one day that we made our mark here.”
Douglas Ellison was something of a rarity in Richmond, an African-American who was born here long before the great migration of workers that swelled the city’s population during World War II.
His family had come from Temple, Texas in search of a better life just before Douglas was born, his wife said. But while he would grow fierce pride for the city of his birth and life, he still carried a quirk or two from his parents’ Texas origins.
“Oh boy, Dad loved Richmond, always Richmond this and Richmond that,” said Robert Ellison. “But every once in while, he’d say ‘middling’ or some other Texas slang, and we’d tease him.”
Douglas Ellison grew up in North Richmond, and lived there for most of his life as a young adult.
Lonnie Washington preceded Ellison as the first African-American on the force, Gagan said, having been hired two years earlier. Emmet Jones, the Richmond police chief from 1933-1948, hired both men.
“The kind of climate they faced and had to overcome is hard to imagine,” Gagan said.
But Ellison would be first at something else. In 1967, after more than 20 years of service, Ellison was promoted to sergeant, the first African-American to achieve that rank. Ellison was embodying a new era.
“He was a supervisor of a core group of officers, probably 10 officers, who were all white,” Gagan said.
After the ceremony and the tour of the station, Gagan followed Robert Ellison back to the central Richmond house that Douglas had bought for his wife and family in 1966. Gagan gave Telethia, 85, an honorary patch and read to her the chief’s commendation.
After the reading, Gagan gave Telethia a framed copy of the commendation. Then she walked into the living room, where several photographs of her husband stand on the mantle.
“He always loved the city,” Telethia said, staring at the old photographs. “And he loved his job.”
Click here to read the full text of the commendation Chief Magnus read to Sgt. Ellison’s family:
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