For Lillian Patterson, curator of a new exhibit honoring African-American public-safety trailblazers in Alexandria, one part of the show stands out. It’s a photograph of firemen — black and white — battling the smoldering aftermath of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the west side of the Pentagon after being hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It’s such a poignant picture,” Patterson said. “You can see on their faces — their attitude going into that burning building is just so heroic.”
The Sept. 11 Pentagon picture is featured on a banner announcing the “Serving With Distinction” exhibit over the front door of the Black History Museum on Wythe Street. The exhibit, which will be at the museum through December, features colorful panels and fascinating artifacts. Visitors can learn about the integration of Alexandria’s police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters through the exhibit’s text as well as a host of items such as the city’s last functional firebox and old prison equipment once used at the old Princess Street jail.
“This is a story that needed to be told,” said exhibit designer Veronica Jackson. “As an African-American designer, I am keen on telling the African-American experience in a way that has not been told until this time.”
Jackson’s favorite artifact is an “air mask” that was designed by African-American inventor Garrett Morgan. Although Morgan, a native of Kentucky, called the device a “safety hood” and patented it as a “breathing device,” it has become commonly known as a “gas mask.” Jackson said that it was a great reminder of the almost forgotten contributions of African-Americans to the modern world.
“This is something we still use today, so this is an extremely important contribution,” Jackson said. “That’s why we included it in the exhibit.”
AT A SPECIAL CEREMONY last week, Alexandria public-safety officials came to the museum to see the exhibit and honor those who came before them. The reception was a chance for speeches and remembrance, with several high-ranking black public-safety officials reflecting on the nexus between race and safety. Deputy Police Chief Earl Cook told attendees that the city’s trailblazers were trying to make a statement about competence, not race.
“It was never about race. We were trying to show that we could do this job,” Cook said. “We all stand behind the same uniform, no matter what race you are.”
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Veronica Mitchell echoed Cook’s comments, explaining that the prison-related artifacts from the old Princess Street jail are a tangible reminder of the city’s shared past. As one of the coordinators who helped put the exhibit together, Mitchell understands the complexity of the story as well as its sadness. For example, the centerpiece of the sheriff’s part of the exhibit features a picture of William Gene Truesdale, an African-American sheriff’s deputy who was killed in the line of duty on Jan. 27, 1981 while trying to apprehend an escaped prisoner.
“I saw him that day,” Mitchell said. “I said to him, ‘You have a good day and be safe.’ He told me, ‘I’m always safe.’ And that was the last time I talked to him.”
Sheriff Dana Lawhorne was a rookie cop at the time, but the events surrounding Truesdale’s death are seared into his memory. He said that it was important to remember Truesdale and to honor his sacrifice to the safety of the city.
“I remember that day very well. I was on my way to work when I found out about it,” Lawhorne said as he examined the photo of Truesdale. “It was a tremendous setback to the city and to law enforcement.”
When Lawhorne became sheriff, he found the old photo stored in a closet. He had it reframed and placed in a position of honor at the department. When he found out about the exhibit at the Black History Museum, he made arrangements to loan the picture to the museum so that Truesdale’s story could be told. Taking in the exhibits, Sheriff Lawhorne reflected on the importance of diversity in public safety.
“This exhibit is about respect and dignity,” Lawhorne said. “We should never forget what these people did.”
THE EXHIBIT features a wide array of memorabilia, including several vintage photographs that give viewers a window into the past. One undated photograph prominently displayed in the police section feature a young-looking Officer Steve Mason — now special assistant to the city manager.
“I can’t say that I was held back by race,” Mason said, looking at the old photograph of him dusting for fingerprints as an Alexandria police officer. “There were a lot of insightful people in this city who looked beyond race.”
For Deputy Police Chief Dave Baker, taking in the exhibit was an exercise in memory and pride. Back in October, Baker met the city’s first black police officer — Al Beverly — at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the integration of the city’s police force. Baker said that the event at the Masonic Memorial had a great impact on him.
“I thought about what he must have had to overcome,” Baker said. “And I thought about all of the people who followed him.”
A 1960s-era photograph of Beverly is featured prominently in the exhibit, reminding viewers of the relatively recent history of integration in Alexandria. As Baker examined the photograph and scanned the exhibit’s other artifacts, he recalled that day at the Masonic Memorial and how much he admired Beverly.
“He was a role model for anyone who wants to go into public safety, and he created other role models in the Police Department,” Baker said. “This exhibit represents history and courage and determination and progress.”
Police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch said that although the exhibit has universal appeal, she hopes that one demographic will be able to make it to the museum before “Serving With Distinction” closes in December.
“Children need to come here and see this,” Bertsch said. “There is a rich African-American heritage here.”