BY HANNAH LESTER
After growing up during segregation and attending a training school in Auburn, John Lockhart bounded past segregation and racism to become the first Black sergeant, lieutenant and captain in the Auburn Police Division.
Lockhart grew up in Auburn from the age of 10. His parents died when he was young, but a sister lived in the Loveliest Village on The Plains, so Lockhart came to live with her.
While young, Lockhart attended the Lee County Training School, which he said was the only “high school” available to Black students at that time.
“In 1957, I believe it was, that’s when Drake High School was built,” he said. “That was the first actual high school (for Black students to attend) because, back then, most of the schools in Lee County and surrounding counties for Black people were called training schools. It was not high schools.
“So I asked the question — why were they training schools and not high schools? And the answer I got was some people thought that Black people could not be learned, they could be trained. So they called those schools training schools.”
Lockhart said he doesn’t know whether this was truly the thinking of the time or not, just that this was the answer he received.
Following graduation from Drake High School, Lockhart played football at Tuskegee Institute on a partial scholarship. However, Lockhart only stayed a year due to financial strain.
Before his long career in police work, Lockhart worked for Auburn University in the War Eagle Cafeteria and for the city of Auburn Parks and Recreation Department.
During this time, activities between white and Black people were still separated, Lockhart said. So when he was promoted to supervisor with the Parks and Recreation Department, he was over the Drake Recreation Center — for Black residents.
A friend of Lockhart’s, John Dunn, was the first Black police officer at the Auburn Police Division.
Dunn worked hard to convince Lockhart to join the force.
“I told him, ‘Woah man, no. Nuh-uh,’” Lockhart recalled. “He said, ‘Well, just come up and ride with me one night.’”
But the ride along did nothing to change Lockhart’s position, he said.
Dunn wasn’t the only one trying to convince Lockhart to join the force. Fred Hammond, the chief, even put in his two cents that Lockhart should join.
“One night, I had to call the police because we had a fight among some of the teenagers [at Drake Recreation Center],” Lockhart said. “… [The officers] said, ‘You see how things go, you could help prevent that if you were police.’”
Lockhart said they eventually wore him down, and he joined the Auburn Police Division.
“On my first night, I was riding with one of the older lieutenants, a white man,” Lockhart said. “He was one of the best police officers I ever met because he took time to talk with you and train you, and he was very patient. He was patient with people, even if he had to arrest someone. He would talk to them first and try to get them to come along peaceful and so forth. And he always was fair, especially with the Black people. I can’t say that for everybody during that particular time.”
By city laws, officers had to have served on the force at least two years before they could be promoted to the next rank. However, in Lockhart’s case, he had only been serving 18 months before he was made the first Black sergeant.
Again, to make lieutenant, officers needed to have served three years on the force, and one of those needed to be as a sergeant. But, Lockhart had only been on the force less than three years when he was made the first Black lieutenant.
Ultimately, Lockhart was promoted as the first Black captain for Auburn, and he spent 17 years in this position.
Lockhart said being a leader was a natural reaction for him.
“It’s a calling,” he said. “I knew one thing about being a leader is that in order to be a leader, you’ve first got to know and you’ve got learn all your people, and you’ve got to know what that means. Being a leader doesn’t mean that you’re just a leader by yourself; the men — you’ve got to instill it in them that you’re the leader.
“But the only thing you’re doing is leading, but to get the job done, everybody’s got to do their job.”
Lockhart said being on the force wasn’t a walk in the park.
“I thought about quitting several times because of the abuse and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I had to grow thick skin because the ‘n-word’ was thrown around so much.”
As the years went by, Lockhart said the color of his skin mattered less and he was respected for what he’d done.
Overall, Lockhart worked with six different chiefs during his time with Auburn.
Lockhart was one of six honorees presented an award, called the Lamplighter Award, by Auburn Mayor Ron Anders at the State of the City Address in November.
Lockhart said he had no idea he’d be receiving the award.
“My son — he knew everything,” he said. “… [The city] had gotten with my son Jay, and they had told him everything, and Jay had talked with my children — his brothers and sisters.”
And they all surprised him by coming to the program, without his knowledge.
They sat in different spots in the audience, and Lockhart didn’t know until after the program ended.
He saw them in the lobby afterward.
“So, they pulled one on me,” Lockhart said. “It was great, you know, it was really great.”
Lockhart, now 82, retired in 1995.
Lockhart credited Dunn, who died in the ‘90s due to cancer, as a friend and fellow officer paving the way for other Black officers.
“He probably went through more than I did, as far as what was happening, because from ‘67 to ‘70 he was there by himself,” he said. “… I know I had a good career when I retired.”