The History Of Chester Pruitt, Fort Walton Beach’s First Black Police Officer
When Chester Pruitt was hired as the first Black officer for the Fort Walton Beach Police Department in 1948, he broke barriers in the city and set a precedent for the Black community.
But much of his 15 years in service reflected the segregated times of the Jim Crow era.
While Pruitt had the authority to detain and question white suspects, he was forbidden to arrest them. He didn’t have a patrol car until the 1960s and walked his patrol shifts in the Black neighborhood of Hollywood Boulevard and Windham Avenue, which was known as “the Quarter,” according to literature that hangs in the Fort Walton Beach Police Department.
Despite the inequality, Pruitt’s legacy was one of strong character. He was known as a “gifted mediator” and “champion of youth” according to the Police Department. Pruitt was a towering presence. In photos, he stands out among his fellow officers, not just for the color of his skin, but for his height and muscular build.
But he didn’t use his stature to gain respect. Instead, he used words.
“He would go out and talk to the (Black) communities,” said Merline Broadnax. “He was just a good person.
Broadnax, now 86, moved to Fort Walton Beach in 1950. As the saying goes, it was “a different time,” for the Black community. Waking up extra early to catch the 4 a.m. bus to the only school for African Americans in the county — Carver-Hill School in Crestview — hanging out at John C. Beasley Park — the only beach open to Black people; and ordering food from a back window separate from white people. There was no mixing with white people, she remembers.
To the Black community, Pruitt was someone they could trust.
“He was a good man, he helped us out so much,” she remembered. “He did the best he could for the Black community. Everybody knew who he was. If it hadn’t been for Mister Pruitt, I don’t know what could have happened.”
According to his son, Chester Pruitt Jr., Pruitt would often help people even after he was off duty.
“Our house was one everybody ran to,” he told the Northwest Florida Daily News in 2003.
Chester Pruitt was born in 1917 in Opp, Ala. He joined the Fort Walton Beach Police Department as a part-time officer in 1948. That same year he married Lula Oates, and two years later they had Chester Pruitt Jr.
Like her husband, Oates also had a heart for youth and worked at Okaloosa Headstart Development Center for 21 years.
Being the First
The year Pruitt was first hired by FWBPD was the same year President Harry Truman issued the executive order that ended segregation in the U.S. military. The desegregating of the military, along with Eglin Air Force Base which was the county’s largest employer could have had a direct influence on Pruitt’s hiring, historians say.
Pruitt was hired as full-time officer in 1951. His salary was $40 a week. The majority of his work was spent patrolling the Silver Inn bar, which sat at the corner of Harbeson Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. It was one of just a few safe hangouts for Black people. According to a 2018 article from the Northwest Florida Daily News, the bar featured entertainers such as James Brown and B.B. King. A photo of Pruitt in uniform at the bar in 1952 is featured in the 2002 book “A Miracle Strip.”
Pruitt’s hiring came around the time other police departments in the state were hiring Black officers. The Miami Police Department hired its first Black police officers in 1946. The city of Orlando followed in 1951. Pensacola Police Department hired the department’s first Black officers in 1954: Joe Jordan Jr., John McDaniel and Felix Cotton. The first Black deputy wouldn't be hired at the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Department until 1974 when Clifford Florence was sworn in. He would stay on the force until 1995.
According to historical accounts, some early American police institutions, especially in the South, were created to prevent slaves from running away or revolting. The appointment of Black officers was a big shift.
Being a first for the local Black community was a responsibility that Pruitt took seriously.
“He thought of himself as a public servant, and he knew that he was the only officer a lot of the Black people in town felt like they could trust," his son told the Northwest Florida Daily News.
Being first is not always an easy position to be in. As Pensacola’s first Black police chief, David Alexander III says he can understand the challenges Pruitt might have faced.
“Failure is not acceptable,” said Alexander, who served as chief of police in Pensacola from 2015 to 2017. “You have to exceed those expectations. It puts a lot of pressure on that individual.”
With his 32 years in law enforcement, Alexander said he understands how important it is for departments to be “cross-culturally competent.” That was even more evident last summer as protestors marched around the world for police reform after the death of George Floyd.
“(The protestors) aren’t anti-law enforcement, they’re anti-corrupt law enforcement,” he said.
Pruitt and other Black officers helped pave a way for careers like Alexander’s.
“Their resilience didn’t come from trying to be popular, but from having good values.”
Pruitt worked his beat until 1964 after a stroke forced him into early retirement. He died four years later at 55. His son has since left the area. But Pruitt’s name and legacy continues.
On Harbeson Avenue, is the Chester Pruitt Park, named after the officer who patrolled the area for more than a decade. It’s a popular site for barbecues and community events. In 2000, Pruitt was one of 385 people who were honored as a “Great Floridian” by the Florida Department of State and the Florida League of Cities. The dedication plaque now hangs at the Chester Pruitt Recreation Center, also known as The Life Center, on Carson Drive.
While the current Fort Walton Beach Police Department is more diverse than it was in 1948, the majority are white. According to the department, there are nine Black sworn officers out of 51. Police Chief Robert Bage said the department is always looking for ways to connect with the people they serve.
“Our department values diversity of thought and experience to help us understand the needs of the community and develop solutions to issues affecting the community,” he explained. “We do not waste any opportunity to have direct contact with the community and recruit community members to become part of the department.”
The story of Pruitt hangs on the walls of the station as a reminder of progress that has been made. While Pruitt’s name may come up during Black History Month, his legacy is “timeless,” said Bage.
“He broke barriers and set examples for others,” he added. “Officers and community members still reference his name today with a sense of pride and understanding that even in the toughest of times, we can succeed. The Fort Walton Beach Police Department is forever grateful for his courage and devotion to our community.”