Saturday, June 11, 2011

Medal of Valor left on his desk with a form letter, no media called, no ceremony or photos

The late Captain Louie White
How long does it take to reward someone for a life saving act of heroism? If you were an African American police officer on the Austin Police Department (APD) in 1972 the recognition would reluctantly come 34 years later.

Giving Sgt. Louie White his due was a forced issue.

In 1973 a year after the incident there was a dis- heartening presentation. No pictures were taken, nor was an official ceremony held to present Louie White the Medal of Valor, as was the norm when White officers committed acts of valor. White’s award was  left on his desk with a congratulatory letter from the chief of police. The chief did not address it to White. 

To Sgt. White this insult was higher in rank than the award. On Thursday, March 23, the City of Austin attempted to show its appreciation for White's actions in 1972. The medal was "officially" presented by APD Chief Stan Knee in 2006. In 1972 White was the only Black officer to ever win a Medal of Valor. White said his skin color is the reason for the delay.
In a form letter dated May 7, 1973, addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” Chief Bob Miles wrote: 

On September 30, 1972, Sgt. Louis White responded to a shooting call at 5104 Woodmoor Drive. Investigation revealed that a woman had already fired shots at a man and that she was holding a woman hostage and threatening to shoot the man or anyone who interfered. At one time she threatened suicide.
  In a very tense situation on Sgt. Louie Whites displayed good judgment, courage and exceptional bravery at imminent risk of life when he persuaded the woman to let him in the house. Sgt. White talked to her for approximately fifty minutes, and finally convinced her to give up the gun and submit to arrest.  Because of the skill and ability and exceptional bravery of Sgt. Louie White and his performance in this very tense situation, he is being awarded the Police Medal for Valor

Louie White
The letter was signed by Miles.

According to Police and the Community, 1976, "Last summer a grievance committee of Black and Brown police officers began meeting to discuss what it felt was a lack of administrative  recognition of contributions made by minority officers. In the past five years minority representatives claimed 32 officers were cited for outstanding duty. None of the awards went to minority officers. Minority officers said they were consistently graded lower on efficiency exams and therefore, had less opportunity for advancement."

In a February 8, 1999 interview with The Villager, White said, “Miles wasn’t my bag. He called me one day crying after he retired, and said, ‘Louie, I know that we didn’t treat y’all right, but I tried to make things better before I left there.’”
White recalls  the 1972 incident that Miles whined about. It was a Saturday morning. He was working traffic, observing officers working radar in the St. John area of Ausitn. He said he was a sergeant at the time. He was alerted about a neighborhood shooting in the midst of watching traffic.

White was told about a hostage situation in progress at the home of a St. Johns' resident. All officers in the area were dispatched to the site. "They had the street blocked off on both ends. I asked the lieutenant if I could go and try to talk to the woman. He said, 'yeah.'"

The house was surrounded by police when White arrived. He said the woman was holding hostage, the wife of the man she was having an affair with. The man's wife was wheelchair-bound, the result of a previous shooting to her thigh. White said the hostage taker shot at the woman's husband when he pulled up in the driveway of their home. He ran when the woman shot at him. The angry shooter was the mother of one daughter.

"When I went into the yard I could see her looking through the blinds. After she didn't shoot at me, I didn't think she was gonna do anything. It was a brick house, and I knew she couldn’t shoot straight through the wall,” White said.    
White said he asked the woman if he could talk to her. First she told him “No.” He asked her again to let him in.  He said he was determined to talk to the angry woman. She was reluctant to talk to him because she feared one of the officers would shoot her to death. She had already shot at the woman's husband, and she was not going to take a chance. Struggling to gain her confidence, and to assure his own safety, White told the woman no policeman was going to shoot her. 

White said to her, “Ain’t nobody gonna kill you. If they do they’ll have to kill me first. She replied, ‘I’ll let you in if you come in by yourself.’’’

The woman opened the door. Stepping inside White saw a frightened woman sitting in a wheelchair. Taking off his police cap, he sat on the couch. He began talking to the irate woman,  convincing her to give the gun to him. Not trusting the other police officers on the scene the woman, who had calmed down somewhat, told White she wanted him to arrest her. He agreed.
“When  I got to the door the media was out front. So she broke and ran back in the house. I asked the media if they would pull back out of the way. So they did. I walked her out to my car, and carried her down to the station and booked her in.   

I guess about six months later a friend of mine, a police officer, came into records one night and asked me if I was ever recognized for the incident that ‘you was involved in, where the lady had a gun.’ I said 'No.' So they (Black officers) wrote a long memo to Chief Bob Miles, telling him how bad it was that I wasn't recognized. They asked him to give me the Medal of Valor. About three months later I was given the Medal of Valor."

White was the only Black officer to receive the Medal of Valor. It’s given for performing above and beyond the call for duty; when an officer puts his life in jeopardy to save someone else, or to diffuse a volatile situation. Getting the reward six months later left a sour taste in White's mouth. The sweetness of the moment was lost due to racism. In 2006 a new Chief of Police Stan Knee, officially represented the Medal of Valor to White, with the proper fanfare.


Ironically, it was uniformed officers who scared Louie White "half to death" when he was a kid growing up in Mexia, Texas. Little did he know that he would one day become a police office himself. He said he never saw a Black policeman in his hometown.

White was born in Mexia, July 8, 1932. He was  the youngest of 10 children. Because jobs were so scarce when he was young, White and his family picked cotton to survive. He said his mother decided to  move them  to Austin  in 1940, hoping to cut out a better life for them. The single school for African American children in Mexia was past inadequate. Text books were used, out of date, most pages missing. White said Black students in Mexia began school in the  first grade, going all the way to 12th grade in the same building.
In Austin his mother worked as maid. She enrolled her children in school. White went to LL Campbell Elementary in East Austin, the designated "colored side of town." When they moved to another location White was enrolled in Rosewood Elementary School on Hargrave Street. Two years later his mother "got fed up with the big city life." She and White returned to Mexia. His sisters and brothers were old enough to take care of themselves. They did not make the move back to their hometown.  

Restless and unhappy in Mexia, White  asked his mother if he could return to Austin to visit one of his sisters for the summer. She agreed. White said he got a job working for James Reed, owner of the Deluxe Hotel, a thriving African American owned hotel located on Navasota and East 11th in East Austin.
Reed also owned the Rainbow Patio, an ice cream parlor. White cleaned both establishments for $7.00 a week. When it was time to start school in Mexia, White said he got a letter from his mother reminding him it was time to come home.  He sent  a letter to her saying he was not coming back because he was working. White said his mother came to Austin, hoping to convince him to return to Mexia. He insisted on staying in Austin.

“I was tired of that kind of living,” White said.  His mother told him he could stay in tAustin, but he had to get his education.  "She went back to Mexia, sold the house, chickens and a cow," said White. He continued working after school. He went on to graduate from Anderson High School in 1949.
While attending the high school, White played in the Anderson High School Yellow Jackets Band. He went onto Tillotson College, getting accepted on a music scholarship.

White said in 1950 eligible young men got form letters from the President of the United States reminding them that it was time to enlist. The Korean war had started. "I joined the Civil Service 6th Army Quarter Masters, and went to Stockton, California. I worked at various jobs." In 1952 he returned to Austin, working at a variety of jobs until he joined the Austin Police Department.  

Had White stayed in Mexia he wouldn’t have seen the same action he experienced on Austin’s streets. It is not likely would have become a policeman had he stayed in his home town. He did not  see a Black officer until he came to  Austin.
White began working for the Austin Police Department April 17, 1959.  Joining a force of 300 officers he was one of six African Americans whose beat was limited to East Austin. White said there was only one Hispanic officer. It did not take him long to become disillusioned with the police department, starting with cadet school. He quickly learned that not all cadets were equal. One unforgettable incident occurred one day after they left the pistol range. The lieutenant suggested they all go for coffee. White said he was feeling proud of himself.
“Now here I was fixing to be a police officer, but then, they burst my bubble real quick. We went to a place on Barton Springs Road. We got out of the car and started in for coffee.  The manager turned to me and said he didn’t mind me coming in, but the customers might not like it. If I wanted to I could drink my coffee out under the tree. The birds had pooped all over the table. So I just told him no thank you. I went back and got in the car. Had I  been the lieutenant, if any one of my men couldn’t drink coffee there, none of them would. That’s the part that got me.”
White said he had grown up with racism, but what unnerved him was the  lieutenant doing  nothing to stand up for him. “It made me feel real small.  That badge wasn’t what I thought  it was. When I would go to cadet class they would be talking about the Constitution, about allegiance to the flag, about all men are created equal.
“I didn’t feel like they were talking about me. It really affected me that day. After my lieutenant didn’t stand up for me . . . from them on, all the Constitution they were talking about in the classroom, all the criminal procedure, the penal code and all this stuff . . . it seemed like it didn’t refer to me. I was left out of it, and I feel like that today.”

After graduating cadet school--the only Black--White, badge number 279, was assigned a beat to walk, which he walked for nine years. He worked as a motorcycle cop, radio patrol, warrant officer, uniforms line sergeant, Training and Recruiting lieutenant, uniform line captain and Community Services and Crime Prevention captain.
“The Black officers couldn't work west of IH-35. It was called East Avenue at that time. Our boundary line was from East Avenue to the East City Limits, which was called Hungry Hill. Now its called MLK,” White said. “We went from East 7th Street to MLK.” He said White people lived Across IH-35.
One patrol car--#261-- was reserved for the six African American officers.  It was the “East Car.” Three officers walked the beat, the other three were designated drivers.
“One officer drove in the day, one drove at night. One was a relief driver when the other one was sick or on vacation. When they were not riding they’d walk the beat with us on East 11th and 12th Streets,” White said.
Police uniforms were different too, says White. The dress code was strict and nonnegotiable. He said police officers did not wear short sleeve shirts.  Police Chief Bob Miles “didn’t believe in that. We had long sleeve gray shirts with a stripe across the shoulder. We wore navy blue caps and pants. 

"The Chief said short sleeves didn’t look professional. I don’t care how hot it was, we had to put on long sleeve shirts. We’d be soaking wet. The car didn’t have air condition.” 

White said rolling down the window did not help them beat the heat. Both East 11th and 12th Streets were just as hot in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, White said.
When bars closed at 12 a.m. on East 11th, some people went to 12th Street or to the Chicken Shack (farther east) where after-hours bars were open until early morning hours on Fridays and Saturdays. They usually sold food, had live bands and a cover charge.

White said East 11th Street had a different crowd. “Most of the people who went on 11th was a different crowd  from those on 12th Street. People who went on 11th were off the street when things closed. The 12th Street crowd was a little bit rougher due to the fatalities and homicides that happened up there.”
When he was a kid White said he got in minor trouble for puling down promotion posters off telephone poles in Austin. Caught red handed, not only did he have to tack the posters back on the poles, the officer, who was an African American, took White home to his mother. That did not set well with her. She scolded White. “Don’t you never let no police drive up to my house!"

White said, “This is what I tried to pattern after. If a kid had never been arrested before, I didn’t want to be the one to give him a record. If it was somewhere I could take him, or turn him loose, that’s what I did. The police got power. Lots of power. He can take your liberty away from you. He can kill you. He’s got all the  power in the world.”
White said Black officers were not verbally told that they could not arrest Whites. The areas they patrolled stated clearly who they could and could not arrest. It was an unspoken rule. He said Black officers had no contact with Whites officers. They did not frequent clubs and bars on the East Side until years later, when Charlie’s Playhouse opened. White officers could arrest or frisk anyone on the East Side. Black officers did not dare frisk or arrest a White person even if he or she was on the East Side.

In a letter to Black and Brown officers, dated 7-31-1975,  Major Don Doyle issued a statement to in which he admitted that minorities were arrested "way out of proportion in  the area of DWIs." He said steps were being taken to "alleviate the situation."

The relationship between police officers and minorities was not good. Dr. John T. King, Huston Tillotson College president, said in 1975, "When I was appointed to the civil service commission I said I hoped Austin could develop a change in attitude. I hope we can reach a time when citizens don't see policemen as enemies but as friends, and police don't see citizens as enemies but as friends. It's definitely a problem not just in Austin but in every city in the country."

King said he was scared of police officers when he was a child. "I do not believe people understand the function of a police department, and that includes the members of the police department themselves." 

White said, “They would come over here, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. They would see a Black man walking down the street, and they’d pull him over to  the curb, and ask him what he had in his pockets; no probable cause. They’d tell him ‘you know the position.’ That means put your hands up on the wall.  They’d go through his pockets, and search him to see if he ad a gun or knife. If he didn’t have either one, he could go on about his business. All Black folks are not crooks, just like all Black women are not prostitutes."

That personal assumption appeared to be the prevailing attitudes of White officers patrolling predominately Black communities. Black cops could not patrol streets across I-35. They couldn't arrest or stop a White person.
Another of White’s memorable moments happened in 1967 when he was standing on the corner of East 12th and Chicon Streets. “We looked down the 1300 block Chicon and saw a house on fire. We ran down there.  We couldn’t get in the front door for the blaze. 
We went through the back and saw a baby crying on the bed. We got the baby. Everybody else was out. That stuck with me.” The Black officers were not recognized or rewarded for saving the child.

February 22, 1980 was the year that White, 47, was promoted to captain. He took it in stride, saying, "It's just a promotion. I studied hard for a promotion and it came through." He was the first African American Austin Police Department officer to take charge of a full shift of Austin policemen. He was in charge of 55 officers.

White was active in the East Austin community, a regular caller to KAZI FM 88 radio, a member and deacon of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. The late Captain Louie White retired from the Austin Police Department in 1988. He was married to Lois J. Mitchell-White of Arkansas. They are they parents of five sons and daughters.  Captain Louis White died in 2009.

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