CHARLESTON, W.Va. - As a young Charleston police officer, George Henderson recalls patrolling areas of the city where he wasn't welcome unless he was working a crime.
"There were places in Charleston where even in my police uniform I couldn't go in and eat," he said.
The year was 1965 and although the city's police force had long ago accepted blacks, the officers still faced prejudice both in and out of their ranks.
Henderson notes the irony of guarding a business that wouldn't serve him without bitterness because at 73, the retired lieutenant doesn't believe bitterness gets him anywhere.
"Don't say that I'm tough, because I'm not," he said. "I just wanted to serve the city the best I could."
Richard "Casey" James also can cite plenty of injustices meted out simply because his skin was black. He remains the city's first and only black police captain, something he notes with both pride and a bit of regret.
He wishes there were others ready to rise to the rank, because he worked long and hard for each of his promotions and fought in court for 10 years to earn his rightful rank as lieutenant. He was the first black lieutenant in the city's history.
"I was always one to speak my piece," said James, 75. "I came up in a segregated society. I knew how to navigate that and maintain my dignity.
"I had to endure. That's one of my strong suits."
The two officers were among those honored last month in a ceremony organized by Kanawha Family Law Judge Sharon Mullens. The ceremony focused on minority first responders.
Mullens said the idea came to her as she thought about some recent tragic events.
"I was thinking about the Connecticut shootings, I was thinking about the big fire on the West Side of Charleston where all those children died in the fire, she said, "and I just thought about how much we owe to those folks who do this job every day, and we don't really think about it and the horrific things they have to see.
"And with respect to minorities, I was thinking about how they've dealt with (those issues) with courage, with grace, and with a passion to do public service."
The Wertz Avenue connection
James and Henderson grew up on Wertz Avenue in what was a traditionally black neighborhood. James notes that 18 law enforcement officials have come from the street, 11 of them eventually landing with the Charleston Police Department. Ten of those 11 were black.
Henderson recalls growing up at the hand of a strict father, who, when his sons complained about having beans for dinner once too often, told them they had to go to work. They first were put to the task of raising a pig before Henderson realized delivering newspapers would be easier.
"Early on, I thought I'd work at one of the plants," Henderson said. Instead, he decided to join the Army, where he served in Germany and found that among Europeans, his skin color didn't matter.
It was a different story among some of his American officers, said, recalling an incident where he was put to work washing vehicles in 26-degree weather because he offended his white superior.
James, too, chose the military route, entering the Air Force, where he served in Asia and had the opportunity to play basketball, football and run track for base teams.
"When I came back, I was stationed at the Pentagon," James said, where he had the opportunity to stay. "Oftentimes I've wondered where I'd be if I had stayed. But my desire was to come home. I just missed West Virginia."
Building a career
Back home, James took the test to become a police officer, passing it easily in 1959. He wasn't yet 21 and his mother refused to let him take the job.
"I took it again in 1963," he said.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me."
James still doesn't look at his career as having been frightening.
"The scary jobs are in coal mining and the chemical industry," he said.
When he joined the force in 1964, James said black officers were assigned to black neighborhoods - downtown, the lower West Side, the housing projects.
"And black officers didn't work together (in the same cruiser)," he said.
He worked every shift and every walking beat. In 1971, he took the test for sergeant, earning the top score of 96. The same day the scores were announced, he got two reprimands and a transfer - and no promotion for seven years.
He recalls that one of his black mentors in the department, Ed Clark, predicted James would one day make captain.