Remembering black West Palm police pioneer Joe Barber
cers as far back as 1948. But for years, Barber’s family said in an obituary notice, “the police department had a practice of having only one African American Lieutenant at a time. This Lieutenant supervised what was known as the ‘Colored Unit’ which had a special separate station at 1st and Rosemary. The colored unit could not arrest Caucasians or patrol Caucasian neighborhoods.”
On Jan. 1, 1969, the city had about 130 officers; 18 of them were black.
That changed in May 1969. Seven black officers, claiming then-Chief William M. Barnes had refused numerous requests for change, each submitted what they called a request for a leave of absence or, if that was denied, “my letter of resignation.” Effective immediately.
The seven had asked for the transfer of a controversial captain, the reinstatement of two recently fired black officers, and a clearer definition of departmental offenses and their penalties.
In February 1969, seven of the nine affected officers had filed a federal lawsuit saying the department was segregated, that assigning patrols based on race violated the 1965 federal Civil Rights Act, and that black officers had limited means to advance. Barber was the leader of that group.
In July 1969, a federal judge dismissed the suit. Attorney Edward Rodgers appealed. On Jan. 26, 1971, the court ratified a consent order in which the police department was “permanently ENJOINED AND RESTRAINED” from discriminating, or from blocking equal opportunities for promotion and assignment, based on race.
Rogers, now in his 90s, could not be reached for this column.
After the federal suit, only one of the seven officers returned to the West Palm Beach police department.
“The only one they rehired was my husband,” widow Eleanor Barber told The Palm Beach Post on Aug. 6. But, she said, he never was promoted past sergeant, even as he stayed on the force another quarter century, retiring in 1995.
“I always thought he was punished for the walkout.” Eleanor Barber said.
In early August, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who started at West Palm Beach in 1970 and was chief from 1996 to 2004, recalled Joe Barber as “an excellent officer and a good sergeant.”
Barber is survived by his wife; sons Zedrick and Tarrence, both of West Palm Beach; and four grandchildren.
Cleveland “Joe” Barber (left) celebrates with his grandson, attorney Zedrick Barber II, after Zedrick was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2014.