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Hidden History: First African-American sheriff since Reconstruction

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WETM) - Law enforcement agents are tasked with protecting communities, but throughout history, Americans have seen mistrust between certain groups and police officers.

The newly opened National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington D.C. hopes to strengthen relations by highlighting the history of law enforcement and having open dialogues about its future. 

The museum recognizes the significant role officers including Lucius Amerson played in improving public safety and race relations. Amerson was the first African-American sheriff elected in the deep south since Reconstruction. Amerson’s badge, sunglasses, and nameplate are on display at the museum to honor the law enforcement and civil rights, pioneer.



Rebecca Looney is the Director of Exhibits and Programs at the National Law Enforcement Museum. She said Amerson was an Army veteran who became sheriff of Macon County, Alabama in the late 1960s following the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Looney said many saw his election as a sign of progress for black Americans fighting for equality and against police brutality. “It's a big step forward. We say law enforcement needs to reflect our communities,” said Looney.

The museum uses audio and video exhibits to document how Sheriff Amerson worked in his community to improve relations between deputies and the majority black population they served. One exhibit plays an old video clip of Amerson vowing to enforce color-blind police tactics. 

Looney said Amerson's story represents a defining moment in law enforcement history. Present day police departments nationwide acknowledge that recruiting and maintaining a diverse force is still a challenge. “If law enforcement isn’t of the community then it’s not really filling the role that we as a democracy have set it to fulfill,” she said. 

Recent headlines have focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and the lack of trust between police and the public. Craig Floyd CEO of the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund said he hopes the museum can play a part in easing tensions. “We are going to have thoughtful important conversations between the public and law enforcement right here in the National Law Enforcement Museum,” said Floyd.

The $100 million museum honors those who protect and serve communities. The facility features thousands of artifacts including firearms, body armor, and equipment used for public safety. “For most people, it will be a real eye-opener,” said Floyd.

The exhibits highlight community policing in Charleston, South Carolina, and other places.

Through programs and open dialogues, Floyd said organizers hope to restore and increase trust. 
“We realize there is great hope for the future. Law enforcement and the communities they work in are doing incredible things to try to strengthen that bond between police and the public” said Floyd. 

Staff at the museum hope sharing the stories of Sheriff Lucius Amerson, as well as the stories of men and women of all races who have given their lives in the line of duty, will help visitors better understand the vital role diversity plays in keeping our communities safe.

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