Juneteenth is Sunday, June 19. The holiday celebrates the liberation of African Americans enslaved in Texas. To remember it, all this week WSKG is looking at the legacies of Black Americans in the Southern Tier.
Wilbur Reid’s home in Elmira was always full of family. But as he built his family legacy and made his mark on the surrounding community, he was alienated by some friends and colleagues.
“Being the first African American policeman in the City of Elmira was difficult,” said Reid’s son, Jamal Malik, who was a toddler when his father joined the police department in 1953.
Reid was the first Black officer to join the city’s police department in the 20th century.
According to the Chemung County Historical Society, although there was a Black police officer on the force in the 1870s, after he retired, no other Black residents were permitted to apply for a position at the department.
In 1947, the local chapter of the NAACP filed a petition with Elmira’s city council challenging the rule in the police and fire departments.
Subsequently, Malik’s uncle, Tommy Reid, became the first Black firefighter in Elmira, and Wilbur Reid became a patrolman.
“It was tough for them because, number one, folk didn’t want them there,” Malik said.
Reid said he largely got along with his colleagues in the police department, but did have to “get a couple of them straight” to the fact that he was a policeman, too.
While he worked the beat in many neighborhoods throughout the city, Reid was often pulled to respond to incidents in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The white police chief assumed Reid could better get information about crime there because he was Black.
Reid recalled one situation in a 1989 interview with the historical society.
“I did appear on the scene in my pretty blue uniform, but prior to that I told the sergeant, Eddy Barchet at the time, I says [sic], ‘Ed, why are you sending me out there?’ And he says, ‘The chief wants you to go.’ And I says, ‘I’m no different than you are. I’m wearing the uniform. I’m a policeman.’ I said, ‘If you think that they’re going to tell me any more than they’re going to tell you, you’re foolish.’”
Reid said he faced some resentment from his neighbors about his role in the police department. He was put in situations where he would have to arrest his friends.
“I used to know what was going on in town,” Reid said. “Anytime something happened, ‘Why, I know Reid, don’t tell him nothing because he’ll have you in jail,’”
Speaking at his home in Elmira, Reid said policing should not be about putting people in jail, but walking through the community to keep it safe.
“I believe that if they put more walking people out on the street in the city—I don’t care what city it is—they’re going to have more information about the people and what their problems are,” Reid added, “and finding a way to help these people. Not just put them in jail.”
What his dad said about policing in the 1950s and 1980s, Malik said it is still true now.
“You can’t just patrol the neighborhood and not care about the people in the neighborhood,” he said.
Police should try to get to know the people in the neighborhood they serve, he added.
“I remember him saying, ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated,’” Malik recalled. “That was his whole philosophy.”
“The proudest kids you ever wanted to see”
Reid left the police department in 1959 to work at Arnot Ogden Hospital in Elmira, where he led the respiratory department and clinical research lab until 1975.
Malik joined the team in high school, and marched with them across the state.
“We went up to Syracuse, Rochester,” Malik recalled. “We had a real stiff competition with the [Rochester] Screaming Eagles.”
The drill team never lost a competition.
“They were the proudest kids you ever wanted to see,” Reid said of the group. “In fact, you used to watch them going to school and they would be marching to school in step.”
Reid said the young men—and later, young women—would return to practice with new steps and routines to try out.
“What happened then was they felt that they were a part of making this organization work because they had something to offer to it,” he explained.
Reid wanted to support young Black futures in the Elmira community, just as he did for his own eight children.
“We had some young men around that—they were floundering,” Reid said in the historical society’s interview. “They didn’t have anything to do, and it was one of those kinds of things. Everybody doesn’t play basketball or football. So, the whole point was what can these guys do that they’re going to be competitive in their area?”
Keeping the “homestead” alive
Wilbur Reid died in 1998. Malik said his father was his hero. As a kid, he followed Reid around, copying his interests and hobbies.
“He played the trumpet, I played the trumpet. He flew, I flew,” Malik said.
People around town still tell Malik how much he resembles his father.
“I take that as a huge compliment,” he said. “I just wish I could fill his shoes.”
Malik moved back to Elmira around 2015. He lives with two of his children, and grandchildren, all in the home where his father raised him.
“Whatever I do, especially here, at his house, I try to do things that will improve it, so that I can leave it here for my kids,” Malik said. “So that they would hopefully improve it as well.”
Malik said growing up, the house on Elmira’s east side was always full of family members visiting, or staying with the Reids until they could get on their feet.
Before that, the home where Malik’s grandparents lived was constantly crowded with family members. That house, just down the street from Malik’s, was known as the family’s “homestead,” busy with relatives migrating north from the South in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Reids’ history in the Elmira dates back to the 1840s, when John Reid, Malik’s great-great-grandfather, escaped slavery and resettled in the city.
“My great-grandfather, he actually bought the house, and people would come up from the south—it was just like the Underground Railroad,” Malik said. “People had places to stay until they could get themselves together, and then they would move out.”
It is a generations-old model Malik follows now. He said he keeps his home open to family members who need it. “It will always be the homestead.”
Recordings of Wilbur Reid come from the Chemung County Historical Society. The drill team heard in this story is the Marching Pythons from Kansas City, recorded by KCUR.