It was, as more than one person in attendance stated or understated, “a historical event.”
The historic Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church was filled to capacity on Aug. 18, literally fully loaded with renowned black leaders, equally notable white leaders, ordinary black citizens alongside white citizens just as everyday – all present to honor the longest-serving Houston police officer in the 174-year history of the department.
Senior Police Officer Edward A. Thomas – better known as Mr. T or, quite respectfully as Mr. Thomas – died on Aug. 10, 2015 at age 94. Of those years, 63 of them saw him serve as a Houston police officer. We will get literal one more time and underscore the fact that he served “through thick and thin.”
We begin with the thin. Mr. Thomas served HPD beginning in 1948 as a member of HPD Cadet Class No. 1. Practically the minute he got his badge he began to experience the widespread prejudice an African American “pioneering trailblazer” had to expect during the strict adherence to Jim Crow laws.
Most of his life story was recounted or referenced at Mr. Thomas’ funeral. Everyone agreed with frequent shouts of “Amen” that his life oozed with what HPOU President told the congregants and guests was “Honor, Integrity and Respect” – all in capital letters.
He was called “Mr. Thomas” by every Command Staff member, mid-manager, officer on the street or in investigations, as well as every cadet. Why, the speakers asked? Out of what Aretha Franklin called R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Besides Hunt, others took their turns praising Mr. Thomas – Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Mayor Annise Parker, HPD Chaplain Monty Montgomery, Police Chief Charles “Chuck” McClelland and longtime Houston pastor and Civil Rights leader, the Rev. Bill Lawson, the founder of Wheeler Avenue Church and now its pastor emeritus.
What could be said about this great man who chose to make the Houston Police Department his life? This distinguished group of speakers counted the ways to praise him. They each performed the task differently, frankly and effectively.
A Keatchie, Louisiana native and devout Christian, Mr. Thomas was a high school graduate who attended Southern University in Baton Rouge before serving his country during World War II, including several years in the European campaign. During the Normandy invasion, Mr. Thomas was there in the uniform of the United States Army.
Congresswoman Jackson Lee recounted the fact that even though Mr. Thomas bravely served his country, he became a part of a police force that didn’t allow him to attend roll call with white officers and wasn’t allowed to eat breakfast or lunch at the police cafeteria. “He walked the patrol beat at a time when other officers had cars,” she said. “He couldn’t vote and could be arrested if he spoke to a white woman.”
Tears and Laughs
Since Mr. Thomas was not assigned a patrol car, he had to walk a miles-long beat that literally extended from Houston’s Third Ward to the Fifth Ward. The distance, once measured by Chief McClelland, is three and a half miles. “He did it twice a day,” the chief once recounted.
Jackson Lee – who with Congressman Al Green presented Mr. Thomas’ surviving family with a flag that flew over the Capitol – said Mr. Thomas continues to walk “through the heavenly gates with God.”
The mood of the mourners the day of the funeral effected some tears at times but also some smiles and laughs.
Mr. Thomas had a well-earned reputation for never wanting to be the center of attention, especially when it involved his record-setting career with HPD. He turned down news media interviews and sternly refused to have his picture taken with anyone, whether a commissioned officer or a suited civilian.
Mayor Parker recounted the day she wanted to present Mr. Thomas with a proclamation citing his retirement in 2011 when he was 92 years old. She wanted him to appear before City Council to recognize his long and distinguished service. “And he wouldn’t come,” the mayor recounted to laughter and applause from those many people who knew Mr. Thomas for who he was.
Parker recounted conversations with Chief McClelland about the names of police personnel for whom the HPD headquarters at 1200 could be named. Some names were hashed out but that of Mr. Thomas easily surfaced to the top and stayed there.
And so the mayor got the opportunity to present the reluctant hero with a second proclamation at the July 27 ceremony that officially announced the new name for headquarters – the Edward A. Thomas Building.
The mayor, as well as Chief McClelland and Ray Hunt, fully acknowledged that throughout history there seldom if ever has been such resounding agreement about the appropriateness of the name for this structure. Hunt said when the issue came before the HPOU Board of Directors, “every board member present seconded the motion” to unanimously support the proposal.
Mr. Thomas persevered and lived most of the years of his policing career through the “thick.” When he started, he was among the very few African American officers on the force. When he retired, he had served under 18 police chiefs, four of whom were black.
God’s Own Heart
“He kept his head up and persevered,” the mayor stated. “No one could break his sense of self and sense of worth. He kept his head up and kept on moving forward.”
Parker said Mr. Thomas chose love and respect over sheer bitterness, a choice which has earned him the eternal respect from not only Houston police officers but others throughout the state and nation.
Chaplain Montgomery used biblical references when he spoke before introducing Chief McClelland, comparing Mr. Thomas to King David and declaring that “he was a man after God’s own heart.”
The chaplain read Mr. Thomas’ obituary, recognizing his surviving family: daughter Edna Kay Thomas-Garner, sister Lillie Harrison, grandchildren Derrick D. Garner and Tamie Thomas and five great grandchildren.
When Mr. Thomas stationed himself around the check-in desk at the building that would later be named for him, he talked about family and was always specifically referring to HPD officers as part of that family.
McClelland admitted that it was the first time he had spoken at a police officer’s funeral, saying that he grew to call him “Mr. T because he was my friend.” He described that close friend as a “very quiet, modest and deeply private man.”
The chief said, “He had a dry sense of humor; he really did. I learned a lot from Mr. T.” He said he quickly bonded with the senior officer due to the fact they both hailed from rural backgrounds, Mr. T in Louisiana and McClelland just across the border in nearby Center, Texas.
The chief drew laughter when he said Mr. T shared with him many stories, especially those “I promised not to tell even after he died.”
Referencing Mr. T’s honor and perseverance during very trying times for African America cops, he said, “He understood he was opening the doors for others and failure was not an option.”
He said Mr. T extolled the pioneering spirit knowing about himself that “I will endure because in the end I will prevail and overcome all these challenges that lie before me. Clearly he understood. My feet are firmly planted on the shoulders of Mr. T.”
Chief McClelland’s remarks drew a standing ovation.
HPOU’s Hunt recounted stories of Mr. Thomas’ reluctance to “leave his post” to celebrate a birthday and had never asked the Houston Police Officers Association – which later became HPOU – for any help, legal or otherwise, after having been a member for about as long as he was a Houston police officer.
The ‘Street Cop’
“The 5,300 members of the Houston Police Officers Union deeply thank you for your 63 years for all you’ve given your loved ones.
“Mr. Thomas may be gone but will never ever, ever, ever be forgotten.”
Finally, the Rev. Lawson spoke. He has seen Houston police officers in the context of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights years, the four African American HPD chiefs and recruiting policies that resulted in more than 50 percent of the department classified as minorities. Lawson said recent events have made it difficult to be a police officer, here or anywhere.
He praised McClelland for being a “street cop” who well knows what the job entails, while expressing the blessing of the fact that the downtown building housing the Houston police headquarters after “a street cop.”
More diversity and improvements in understanding police officers and their jobs in more Houston communities happened through what Lawson termed “community policing.”
“Citizens are able to have community policing,” the pastor said. “They got the idea from Mr. Thomas. They got the idea for naming a building after a street cop, the kind of cop who was not likely to abuse but more likely to protect kids and a street cop that old people felt safer having when he was in their neighborhood.”
Lawson recognized Mr. Thomas as a godly man who hailed not from royalty but from the underclass. God did with Moses and David what he couldn’t have done with a king or prince.
So also he did with Mr. Thomas, the Houston street cop.