Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Black Cop, White Cop

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
            The other day I was working on identifying and cataloging a collection of unlabeled photographs of Elmira Police officers from the 1950s.  It was pretty slow going but there was one man I thought I knew right away: Wilbur Reid.  From 1953 to 1959, Reid was the only black officer in the entire Elmira Police Department.  *** Correction:  According to Reid's son, the man in the photo is actually not Wilbur Reid.  If anyone knows who he actually is, I would be much obliged if you'd let me know***
See the difference?
            In recent months the often troubled relationship between police and communities of color has been in the forefront of our national consciousness.  Problems include racial profiling, excessive use of force and a mutual lack of trust.  There are many steps which need to be taken to begin to deal with these issues, but some feel that having a police force which is more representative of the community it serves might help.  Historically speaking, how has the Elmira Police Department reflected the diversity of our community?

            Over the last 150 years of its existence, the Elmira Police Department has been very white.  The first black police officer was John Washington.  He was appointed to the police in 1876 by Mayor Turner and served for 13 years before retiring in 1889 at the age of 71. Washington was a giant of a man who was frequently called upon to carry home drunks.  At the time of his retirement he received a special commendation from the police commissioners for his service. 
John Washington, ca. 1880
            Washington would be the last African American on the force for over 50 years.  In October of 1947, the civic affairs committee of the Elmira chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) petitioned the city Council asking for the appointment of blacks to the police and fire departments.  “In other cities Negroes are so employed and it is generally conceded that Negro policemen are very valuable in the city.  Negroes are citizens and in a democratic society should have representation,” the petition read.  The Council agreed and encouraged blacks to apply for the next round of civil service testing, with the understanding that veterans would receive preference.  In 1953, Wilbur Reid passed the test and became Elmira’s first black police officer in the 20th century.

              He left the force in 1959 in favor of a more lucrative job as a medical technician, but the department went on to hire three new black officers during the 1960s: Robert Harriel Jr. (1964-1986), Arthur Keith Sr. (1964-1974) and Joseph Muson (1969-1970).  Following Harriel’s death in 1986, the department was once more completely white.  In 1998, it began a campaign targeted at recruiting blacks, Hispanics and women.  It was also around this time that the department struggled with protests and lawsuits alleging racial discrimination and profiling by police.  Following the incidents, the department conducted a series of community conversations in order to improve communications and allay fears.  In 2006, they hired their first 21st century black officer.  There are currently 2 black officers on the force. 

Elmira police, ca. 1970s

Monday, February 23, 2015

When Lightning Strikes

by Erin Doane, Curator

Trinity Episcopal Church on North Main Street in Elmira was struck by lightning on June 2, 1916. It is not at all unusual for churches to be struck by lightning. Churches are often the tallest buildings in an area so are more likely to be struck. Quite a few articles about lightning strikes show up in old issues of the Star Gazette newspaper. The Christ Episcopal Church in Wellsburg had to have its 80-foot tall spire repaired after lightning tore part of it away and a June 29, 1945 strike on the tower of the German Evangelical Church on Madison Avenue tore off shingles and wooden roofing though the copper cross at the top of the tower was not damaged.

First German Evangelical Church, c. 1910s
Lightning strikes are, obviously, not limited to houses of worship. Any relatively tall structure can be a target. On June 20, 1913, the flag pole on the main building of the County Home in Breesport was struck by lightning. The strike tore the large metal ball at the top of the pole from its fastenings and melted some of the mountings. Inside the ball, Superintendent George Clark found a copy of the Chemung Valley Reporter and other documents that had been placed there when the pole was first installed. During a storm on July 22, 1938, a home on Harrick Street was struck. The bolt followed the chimney into the house, blew lids off cooking pots on the stove, and knocked over a small child. The strike destroyed the chimney, broke rafters in the attic, and damaged an upstairs bedroom and hallway. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Trinity Episcopal Church, 1907
Countless other lightning strikes on buildings, poles, and trees have been reported in the local newspaper. The 1916 Trinity lightning strike is special, though, because of all the wonderful details that were reported. Nearly sixty members of the church choir were meeting for their weekly rehearsal. The storm came without warning and when lightning struck the steeple many inside through some fanatic had planted a bomb in the church. Outside the building, the bolt tore bricks out of the southeast corner of the steeple and left a crack several feet long. It then followed the steel snow breaker, leaving holes in the slate roof. Inside it chased down the wires to the electric switchboard where it blew up fuses and sent out blue flames. James G. Breed was sitting near the switchboard at the time and the flames burned the back of his coat.

Star Gazette headline from June 3, 1916
The moment the lightning struck, there was a deafening crash and all the lights went out. Plaster rained down on the choir members, the force of the lightning strike whisked sheet music from their hands, and their frightened screams filled the air. One woman lost consciousness but was soon revived. The organist suffered a severe shock to his legs and others reported numbness and aches and pains. Several were so affected by the events that they were taken home in automobiles. Most had fully recovered by the next day. All those present were commended for their calm during the incident. They managed to make an orderly exit in complete darkness thanks to the men of the choir who “acted courageously like true Americans.”