Edward A. Thomas was assigned to a foot patrol beat in a mostly black neighborhood when he joined the Houston Police Department in 1948.
That’s because Thomas, who died of natural causes Monday at 95, wasn’t allowed behind the wheel of a patrol car because he was black.
But there were other indignities as well.
When he arrested somebody, Thomas had to use a city bus to take the suspect to jail. He also had to ask permission from a supervisor to arrest a white person. Thomas couldn’t share a lunch table with his fellow white HPD officers and he wasn’t allowed to drink from their water fountains.
“The organization he was serving was working very hard to get rid of him,” said former Houston Police Chief and current City Council member C.O. Bradford.
“But, he endured,” Bradford added. “Because he endured, it was possible for me to excel.”
Known to other HPD officers and city leaders as “Mr. Thomas,” he wore a Houston police badge for 63 years. He finally retired in 2011 and set the record for the longest-serving officer in HPD’s history.
“He was a man who I respected immensely and was honored to know and call my friend,” HPD Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr., said in a statement.
Bradford was a young cadet at the HPD police academy in 1979 when he met Thomas. Their conversation was brief because veteran officers – Thomas had served almost 30 years at that point – didn’t have friendly chats with rookies. But once he got off probation, Thomas gave the young officer some advice: “He said, ‘You haven’t failed until you stop trying. Keep trying – keep punching through,” Bradford recalled on Monday.
Thomas wasn’t the first black officer in the department. Bradford said three or four had joined HPD before him, but they didn’t last long in a police force with racial problems. Thomas stuck with it. The only blemish on his record was the time he was disciplined for speaking to a white meter maid who had asked him to accompany her to ward off catcalls from construction workers.
“He was cut very differently than most police officers. He could endure; he was very humble; he had suffered a lot,” Bradford said. “He served with honor and distinction and helped transform the Houston Police Department from one of brutality in the use of force to one of the nation’s best local law enforcement agencies.”
In June, the Houston City Council voted unanimously to name HPD’s 26-story Travis Street headquarters after Thomas. It was one of the few times he had agreed to be honored.
In 1998, The 100 Club wanted to recognize Thomas for his then 50 years of service to the Houston Police Department. Bradford called him to his office to give him the good news.
“He said, ‘No sir, Chief. I am not going to go to the awards. I don’t want it,'” Bradford said.
Thomas said he would attend the ceremony only if it was an order. Bradford went instead, accepting a trophy and an engraved handgun on Thomas’ behalf. A couple of days later, Bradford called him to his office to pick up the awards.
“He said, ‘I don’t want that. I just want to do my job. That’s all I want to do,” Bradford said.
This time Bradford pulled rank, telling Thomas to take the trophy and the pistol.
“He said, ‘I’m following your order,'” Bradford remembered.
Thomas is survived by a daughter, a sister and a niece. He was born near Shreveport, La., and studied at Southern University in Baton Rouge until he was drafted in World War II. He was a soldier in North Africa and in Europe and took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
A few years after the war, Thomas was passing through Houston on a trip to visit relatives in California when he spotted a sheet of paper on the floor. It was a job application for the Houston Police Department.
Mr. Thomas had found his home.