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Great Courage: The First Black Sheriff Elected in the South Since Reconstruction

Great Courage: The First Black Sheriff Elected in the South Since Reconstruction

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Great Courage: The First Black Sheriff Elected in the South Since Reconstruction

238 pagine
3 ore
Dec 1, 2017


Great Courage is the extraordinary story of the life of Lucius D. Amerson, The First Black Sheriff Elected in the South Since Reconstruction. In these exciting pages, Sheriff Amos, as he was known by citizens in the rural communities of Macon County, tells of his experiences as a Korean war veteran who became for his no "nonsense" and "in your face" style of law enforcement. He won the respect of black and white citizens by enforcing the law fairly and equally, regardless of color.
Dec 1, 2017

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Great Courage - A.E. Amerson



The office of sheriff in the rural south is considered to be one of much power. It is an office for which its citizens, black and white, have held different regards. The traditional role of the sheriff during the Jim Crow era was that of an oppressor who often participated in the exploitation, mistreatment, and, in some cases, deaths of black citizens.

Because of the Negro citizen’s economic plight in the rural south, many were forced to rely on credit from local creditors for survival—merchants who often exploited their customers by having them sign a blank check to borrow ten dollars on Wednesday and return twenty dollars on Friday. When the Negro citizen failed to repay this exorbitant amount, the creditor would fill in the blank check for twenty or twenty-five dollars and turn it over to the local white sheriff for collection without any legal papers involved.

It was for this reason that many Negro citizens were arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges of issuing worthless checks. In many cases the creditors knew they would be unable to meet the repayment terms. Having to pay double or triple the amount originally borrowed, plus any court fees, further penalized those who were able to bond themselves out of jail. This was how sheriffs in many counties of the rural south made their living—through exploitation of the poor and underprivileged.

Because of the manner in which Negroes in the south were treated during the Jim Crow era, it is easy to see why they came to mistrust law enforcement agencies. Many Negroes were afraid to go to the sheriff’s office to request assistance on serious matters of a law enforcement nature. It was commonplace in the south for Negroes to be regarded as less than full citizens. Many were told, Wait outside, Boy! After forty-five minutes to an hour later, they would be called in to the sheriff’s office to state the nature of their visit.

This double standard was not limited to mere office courtesies. It was also the case when Negroes attempted to bond themselves out of jail. Many Negroes could not bond others out of jail in spite of owning property as required by law in the signing of a defendant’s bond. However, many whites who did not own land or property could bond a Negro out of jail to work on their farm or at their sawmill. Unfortunately, if the Negro stopped working, his bondsman would call the sheriff and have him placed back in jail—even after having worked two or three months.

Situations and circumstances of this kind existed for years without cries from white society. Due to the increased number of registered Negro voters throughout the south, however, Negroes were no longer willing to tolerate this kind of injustice. Since the law had not adequately protected Negroes in many cases, they had no other recourse but to protect themselves. The power of the ballot would be their weapon of defense.

Throughout my initial campaign and eventual election, I was repeatedly asked by the news media as well as many whites why a Negro would want to run for the office of sheriff and what prompted my decision to do so. Incidents and situations such as those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs are what motivated me to run for sheriff.


My story begins in a small community known as Boligee, Alabama. Boligee is typically what African Americans, after migrating to metropolitan cities, refer to as The Country. Situated approximately thirty-six miles west of Tuscaloosa along Interstate 20 and roughly twelve miles south on County Road 39 sits Boligee. Boligee is located in Greene County and had a population in 1930 of 19,745 according to the U.S. Census. The majority of the residents in Greene County are African American. Agriculture is the primary industry. Farming essentially was—and still is—the predominant way of life for African Americans living in Boligee. Cotton, corn, and sugar cane are the most notable cash crops of Greene County.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated:

All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

This proclamation declared all slaves free; however, few people were actually freed as a result of this announcement. It did not apply to slaves in bordering states fighting on the Union side, nor did it affect slaves in southern areas already under Union control, which included Alabama. It was not until 1865, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that slavery was officially abolished in all areas of the United States. Thus marked the beginning of the Reconstruction Era in the south—the period during which Confederate states were gradually readmitted to the Union.

In many parts of the south, the newly freed slaves labored under conditions similar to those existing before the Civil War. Former Confederate states had no interest in ensuring the freedom of southern blacks. New state legislatures passed laws designed to keep blacks in poverty and in positions of servitude. Under these so-called ‘black codes,’ ex-slaves who had no steady employment were arrested and/or ordered to pay stiff fines. I speculate this was one of the main reasons why my grandfather, Bill Amerson, chose to remain in Greene County and continue his trade as a farmer working the sharecropping circuit.

Following the Civil War, the southern economy was decimated following the liberation of its free labor pools. Newly freed slaves now demanded autonomy and fair wages for their labor. Sharecrop-ping, consequently, developed as a replacement for slave labor. Without land, former slaves were forced to work out new relationships with their former owners. They would get all the seeds, food, and equipment they needed from the company store, which allowed them to run a tab throughout the year and to settle up once the crops were harvested. When it came time to settle up, the black farmer was always a few dollars short of what he owed the landowner, so he invariably began the new year in the hole.

I am reminded of this broad application of economic racism/discrimination in Jean Wheeler Smith’s book, Frankie Mae (1968). Frankie Mae was a young black girl in the deep south who learned rudimentary math skills and found that she was no match for the figures at the company store. When at thirteen she questioned Mr. White Junior’s arithmetic, the landowner barely restrained himself from shooting her and her father. He sent her away with these words: Long as you live, [EXPLETIVE], I’m gonna be right and you gonna be wrong. Now git your black ass outta here.

As the black sharecropper’s debt grew after each harvest, he faced the reality that it was impossible to get out of the hole of debt he amassed with the landowners. Today as I reflect on this, I realize my ancestors had great resolve during this challenging period of American history. Most colored men, like my grandfather, were not afforded a formal education following the abolishment of slavery; however, what they didn’t have by way of formal education they made up for in life experiences. This enabled them to reason things out. It didn’t take a formal education for my grandpappy to know that there was no difference between sharecropping and slavery because the conditions were the same: long hours, back-breaking work, extreme weather, intense thirst, and unfair wages. Would you reason it any differently?

I was born the seventh child to Luvinne (Jones) and Henry Amerson in Boligee, Alabama, on October 7, 1933. I was told that my arrival into this world was under the duress of a life-threatening delivery. After I was born the attending white physician, Dr. Lucius, said to my mother, Ms. Luvinne, you too old to be having any more babies.

My mother, who was obviously exhausted, nodded and directed one of my older brothers to fetch the basket she had prepared earlier to thank Dr. Lucius, one of the few physicians in the county who provided care for Negro folk. As Dr. Lucius prepared to depart, he said, I’ll come by and see how you’re doing in another week or so. Have you thought of a name for this one? My mother glanced down at me, then looked up and said, I’m gonna name him Lucius.

After my birth, the on-again, off-again relationship between my father and mother came to an end, and he left her alone to raise my brothers Charlie, Woody, Marshall, Steve, Henry, Jr., our sister Queenie, and me. However, my mother was a strong black woman who did what she had to do to raise her children.

With my mother’s blessing, my eldest brother, Charlie, enlisted in the Army two years before I was born. While he was away, he regularly sent home money to help the family. Over time, Momma was able to save enough money to purchase several acres in Boligee, which was going for a dollar an acre at the time. With this land, my mother provided food for our family and earned income from the many crops we harvested and sold. We grew tomatoes, corn, peanuts, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and our most valuable crop, sugar cane.

In front of our home was a syrup mill or cane grinder, as it was more commonly called. We used the cane grinder to extract the sweet juice from the sugar cane we harvested, which we made into cane syrup just as Cicely Tyson’s character, Rebecca, did in the 1972 movie Sounder. Today it still stands in front of the house I grew up in as a relic of our family history.

Eventually my older brothers Steve and Henry Jr. would follow in Charlie’s footsteps and join the Army. They both continued the tradition of sending money home to Momma. Over time my mother was able to amass over a hundred acres of land, which provided a stable source of income for our family. This was a profound accomplishment for a Negro woman with no education. One by one I watched my elder siblings depart Momma’s household and make due on their own. As I reached the age of seventeen, I, too, was lured by the opportunities and adventures in the Army that my brothers Charlie, Steve, and Henry described in the many letters they sent home.


Eight months before my eighteenth birthday, with my mother’s permission, I joined the Army. The Army of 1951 was significantly different than the Army in which my brothers Charlie, Steve, and Henry served from 1931 to 1947. The Army and its Air Corp, as well as the Marines and Navy, were segregated forces in 1931. Black soldiers who fought against the Germans and Japanese during War World II were relegated to serving in all black outfits, which provided combat and logistical support.

After World War I ended, Army manpower declined as white G.I.’s exited the military to resume their civilian lives. At one time, this revelation raised the possibility that black National Guard and Reserve regiments would eventually form a disproportionately large share of the peacetime military. The War Department (now known as the Department of Defense) responded in 1919 by imposing restrictions on the enlistment of blacks in the infantry and cavalry.¹

Although the state of segregation in the Army aroused concern among black newspaper and civil rights organizations, most blacks and whites in the 1930s were concerned with survival. During the 1930s and for much of the following decade, the Great Depression era of American history left much domestic unrest as a result of unemployment, bank failures, and farm foreclosures. It wasn’t long, however, before black activists refocused their attention on the treatment of black soldiers and their assigned roles.

During 1938, for instance, the Kansas City Call newspaper focused attention on racial discrimination at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where soldiers of the Tenth Calvary, famously known as the Buffalo Soldiers for their bravery in subduing Native Americans, outlaws, Mexicans revolutionaries, were functioning as post labor pools. Despite the honors and distinction the Tenth Cavalry had received previously, their families were not allowed use of base swimming facilities, clubs, and local restaurants.²

By 1940, with the war raging in Europe, the War Department endorsed a basic policy of accepting blacks according to their proportion of the populace in a given corp.³ Stubbornly, the Army continued to maintain its fundamental objection to integrating its forces. This was further demonstrated by its use of separated facilities at Fort Huachuca, which was an isolated outpost in Arizona. Fort Huachuca had not only separate officer’s quarters but also two hospitals, one staffed by blacks for blacks and the other operated by whites for whites.⁴

Segregation was only one of the by-products of racism imposed against black service men and women. A number of military posts were located throughout southern regions of the United States. Southern whites were totally opposed to the advancement and opportunities the military service offered blacks. In April 1941, a black soldier, Private Felix Hall, was found hanging from a tree at Fort Benning, Georgia. Post authorities initially tried to label his death a suicide, but black troops, especially those from the south, disagreed. His death was a lynching.

Racial tension in the Army was at an all-time high in the decade before integration. Fear helped unite black soldiers since the Army wasn’t going to protect them. At Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the summer of 1947, white military police from Fort Bragg boarded a bus loaded with black soldiers, most of whom had been drinking, and tried to quiet the unruly troops by threatening use of their batons. Instead of cringing before authority, the angry black troops fought back, one of them snatching a pistol from a military police-man’s holster and opening fire. The altercation left one black and one white military policeman dead and three blacks and two whites wounded.

Another incident involved a confrontation with white military police officials at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. The police were trying to enforce uniform regulations among black troops who were angered after being transferred from the more open society of Phoenix, Arizona. A fight broke out between the black soldiers and military police.

The local sheriff arrived on the scene of the disturbance. An apprehended black soldier broke loose from the local law enforcement agency and was shot to death. The black members of the 364th Infantry armed themselves and tried to escape the camp. Intent on getting revenge for the senseless killing of their fellow soldier, they even challenged a riot squad of black military police officers who opened fire and wounded one man. The regimental commander and the chaplain eventually managed to gain control, although a search for hidden weapons would continue for several days.

Throughout the fighting in Europe during World War II, some commanders were forced to intermingle black and white artillery and tank destroyer units in combat as a result of casualties and slow troop replenishments. It was not until late 1944 when the need for infantry replacements became so acute that black platoons were incorporated into white rifle companies. Army planners attempted to calculate the number of troops necessary to defeat Italy, Germany, and Japan; however, their calculations were underestimated after U.S. forces sustained massive casualties during Germany’s thrust across France, which ended in a stalemate along German borders.

The War Department at this point had no choice but to send out a call for all able-bodied volunteers, preferably graduates of basic infantry training, the day after Christmas 1944. Since the military’s source of white manpower was already tapped out in the immediate theatre, the response to America’s call came from black units and soldiers.

In June 1950, North Korean People’s Army indirectly facilitated the integration of black and all-white units as they crossed the thirty-eighth parallel north latitude toward South Korea in an attempt to overwhelm their neighboring republic. Americans from all races, backgrounds, and nationalities would answer the call to fill the ranks of its armies in support of the United Nations Resolution in Korea, including myself.

After I waved good-bye to my mother, I hitched a ride to Birmingham where I enlisted into the Army. Upon completing my basic and advanced individual infantry training, I was assigned to Company G, Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment of the First Cavalry Division in the Republic of Korea. The Seventh Cavalry Regiment was known as the Garry Owen regiment because it took its name from the title of a famous Irish drinking song that was favored by Major General George Armstrong

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