State’s first black law officer recalls his career path

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 11, 2001

Walter Squalls still beams with pride as he talks with visitors about becoming the first black commissioned law enforcement officer in Mississippi. On Sunday afternoon at his Eastmoor Drive home, Squalls pointed out the patrolman, sergeant, lieutenant and captain’s badges earned during 21 years on the force.

He also flipped through the pages of a scrapbook he has kept of milestones in his career with the Natchez Police Department.

But Squalls doesn’t just keep the scrapbook for himself – he uses it as a visual aid when he speaks at Black History Month programs in and around Natchez. &uot;I want to show (students) what they can achieve,&uot; he said.

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In 1963, Squalls was working as an assistant butcher at a Jitney Jungle in a shopping complex near downtown when he saw a newspaper advertisement announcing job openings at the Natchez Police Department.

That same year, he took the civil service examination he needed to get on the department’s waiting list. &uot;It was easy,&uot; Squalls said. &uot;They were basically questions on how to get from point A to point B – and I’d been living here all my life,&uot; Squalls said.

Nevertheless, Squalls was told that he failed the test. He tried again in 1964 and 1965, taking a test that had been changed to multiple choice questions – and was again told that he failed.

Squalls then enlisted members of the Natchez Civic and Business League to ask city civil service officials about Squalls’ score on the test.

&uot;And they were told that she (the civil service clerk) had made a mistake&uot; in scoring the test, Squalls said.

He was then given a verbal exam that included just one question: &uot;Why do you want to become a Natchez police officer?&uot;

Squalls’ answer was that he wanted to give fellow black Natchez residents &uot;an overview of the laws of this city and state and assist them in following and maintaining them.&uot;

That year, 1965, Squalls got the job – something his wife of 42 years, Betty, viewed as both a fearsome event and a point of pride.

&uot;I felt uncomfortable at first,&uot;&160;Betty Squalls said. &uot;At first, I was afraid he would get hurt, but then the idea grew on me. And I was proud that he was the first black police officer.&uot;

Walter Squalls faced his share of the pitfalls any law enforcement officer faces day-to-day, including unpredictable domestic disputes, suicides and fatal car crashes.

Squalls – who earned the rank of lieutenant in 1972 and captain in 1979 and amassed several training certifications – also faced the problems of race. Indeed, some of his fellow officers quit when they discovered he had been hired.

And in the 1970s, he joined a group of defendants who filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding civil service examinations and promotion practices.

Articles that appeared in The Natchez Democrat regarding such events are also documented in Squalls’ scrapbook.

But Squalls said he is not bitter about such struggles, instead seeing them as necessary to bring about the freedoms black people enjoy today.

&uot;No, I wasn’t bitter – the times bring on a change,&uot; Squalls said. &uot;It was just something we went through at that time. (Black) people who think we aren’t doing so good now should have been around in my time.&uot;