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Courtesy photo
The 1951 group photo of Athens police officers and officials, above, includes Carlos Nelson, fourth from the left in front, the grandfather of Sgt. Jason White, who is compiling a history of the department. At right, a 1916 photo of city marshal Walter Yarbrough is one of the oldest White has found.

Police stories waiting to be told
Athens sergeant attempting to fill in blanks in history of area department

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com · 340-2445

ATHENS — An unsmiling city marshal, his image so faded in the photograph that he looks like a ghost.

Other pictures of uniformed men kneeling, standing or sitting for a group photo. They protected citizens, some lost their lives, but for many, their names are unknown.

These photographs are but snippets in history, their stories waiting to be told.

Athens police Sgt. Jason White plans to tell their stories. He’s working to compile a history of the Athens Police Department, a history that is incomplete with stories buried in more than 100 years worth of microfilm or forgotten in family trunks.

Records lost in fire

Governmental records of the department’s beginnings were lost when fire destroyed the Limestone County Courthouse in 1864.

White has found an 1896 picture of city marshal Silas “Bunk” Hine, and a faded 1916 photo of unsmiling city marshal Walter Yarbrough.

“The marshal, what we would call a chief today, used to be elected,” White said. “I would like to get a picture of every marshal and chief.”

A memorial page for officers who died in the line of duty spurred White into gathering the department’s history.

“We’ve lost six that I know of,” White said. “Chances are, we’ve lost a lot more than that, but I haven’t found any records. All officers who lost their lives deserve to be honored. I don’t think we should forget their sacrifices.”

Athens incorporated in 1818, but the earliest known death in the line of duty is 1941.

White has found mention of a police force as early as after the Civil War. A newspaper article reported that carpetbaggers told a group of blacks to go to town with guns to vote. The police stopped them, took their weapons, let them vote and then gave their guns back, White said.

“That era and the period of time before that was a turbulent time,” White said. “I’m sure we lost officers, but we don’t know who they are.”

1946 race riot

White also wants information on major cases or incidents, such as an August 1946 race riot. While searching through microfilm, White found an article that reported that four officers held off a group of about 1,000 rioters.

Two white men on furlough had left a downtown cafe, the article reported, and were drunk. They bumped into a black man and a fight ensued.

“It was Saturday, which was trade day, so a lot of farmers were in town,” White said.

Officers Norton and Hargrove responded and took the white men into custody.

“The farmers saw this and started screaming for the officers to arrest the black man and let the white men go,” White said. “The group followed the officers to the city jail.”

The crowd grew larger and broke through the station’s front door. Two more officers, Officers Johnson and Lewis, arrived and took position on the second floor, which housed the jail.

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Courtesy photo
Athens police Sgt. Jason White is seeking the identity of those in this 1964 photo of Athens police officers and staff. The man in front of the letters “IN” in the word BUILDING is Billy Daly, who was killed while doing traffic patrol on a motorcycle.
“They stormed the jail eight times,” White said. “On the eighth time, Officer Johnson had had enough. He pulled his revolver to fire.”

Johnson’s partner hit his arm, causing the bullet to strike the wall. The mayor arrived and released the prisoners.

“But the crowd was still drunk and broke off into smaller bands,” White said. “The store owners took up arms to protect their customers.”

Fifty troopers and the Decatur police chief came with 10 officers to disband rioters.

‘Did their job’

“This story shows that despite attitudes of the day and the violence, these officers did their job,” White said.

White wants to compile such stories and photographs into a book. He seeks the public’s help to provide pictures and stories.

“I will take any picture, whether it seems insignificant to someone or not,” White said. “For example, I have a photograph of my grandfather doing a roadblock in a Santa suit.”

White also has a 1951 group photo of Athens officers that includes his grandfather, Carlos Nelson, who was a traffic officer. Nelson died 10 years before White was born, so his grandfather didn’t personally influence him to become an officer.

“But I have his badge, and even in my baby books it says I want to be a police officer when I grow up,” White said. “There was one stretch when I wanted to be an astronaut, but other than that, I’ve always wanted to be an officer.”

And he wants those who have ever donned an Athens uniform to have their place in history.

End of watch

Six known Athens police officers died in the line of duty, and the department is searching for information on any others. The department has information on:

  • Officer Bedford F. Brackeen, died March 24, 1941. He was parked next to the old bus stop on Clinton Street when a suspect approached the car, argued with Brackeen’s partner about a previous incident involving the suspect’s sister. The suspect opened fire, hitting Brackeen three times. Bracken still chased the shooter until he collapsed. Authorities arrested the shooter in Nashville.

  • Officer Billy Daly, died Dec. 22, 1964. Daly, a motorcycle cop, was on traffic patrol when a car struck him at U.S. 31 and Forrest Street.

  • Lt. Benton McLemore, died March 7, 1969. A woman called police and said she heard a shot at her brother’s home. The brother was known to be mentally ill. McLemore responded, and when he knocked on the door, the suspect shot and killed him with a shotgun. When backup arrived, the suspect exchanged fire and then killed himself.

  • Officer Dewey Wayne Dorsey Sr., died Feb. 11, 1989. Dorsey succumbed to injuries sustained in an automobile accident he had while transporting blood to Athens-Limestone Hospital.

  • Sgt. Larry Wayne Russell and officer Tony Mims, died Jan. 2, 2004. Mims responded to a suspect’s call to police asking for FBI agents or officers. The suspect shot and killed Mims when he arrived, and then shot and killed Russell as he exited his patrol car.

    Holly Hollman

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