[Martin Luther King Jr. (seated center) during his January 8th, 1958 visit to Rochester. Dr. Charles Lunsford is to his left, kneeling. Woman # 6 may have been Principal Letha Ridley. Photo: Charles Price with his annotations. From On Dr. Charles T. Lunsford and the house where he entertained Martin Luther King Jr. ]
As reported by Gary Craig and Justin Murphy, “Charlie Price remembered as pioneer for Black police officers in Rochester NY” (Democrat and Chronicle, 5/17/21), Captain Charles “Charlie” Price, the first Black man to join the Rochester Police Department, died at age 98.
Price graduated from Madison High School where he starred in basketball, football, and track. Mr. Price came from a family known for service, dating back to the Civil War cavalry service of his grandfather, Adam Price. And, he continued the tradition, joining the Tuskegee Airmen, the country’s first Black military airmen, in World War II.
Craig and Murphy trace Price’s career in the RPD from 1948 – 1985, as well as his post-career stature as a respected voice within the community. In a 2019 Monroe County bicentennial year ceremony, Price was presented with a memorial sword with an engraved portrait of him. “The inscription on the blade reads: ‘Captain Charles Price – Service – December 1947 to March 1985 – First of Many.’
As Craig and Murphy say, regardless of the community sentiment toward and respect for police, Mr. Price was occasionally reminded of the difficult path he was forging and the racism he was confronting. Some of that racism came from within the ranks. Price was sworn in privately, separate from other white officers, said his daughter, Renee Price. “In 1965 when he was promoted, they asked him not to come to City Hall for the ceremony,” she said. Again, he was promoted separately.
As seen in the D & C letter, Price’s death reminded me of a visit made in 2015 to his home in Henrietta that I wrote about in a 2015 D & C Blogatorial:
Craig and Murphy describe Price as a warm man of unassuming demeanor, humble and often unwilling to acknowledge his personal legacy. This was the Charlie I met, dressed sharply in his authentic looking, blue with yellow scarf Buffalo Soldier uniform. Price’s grandfather had served in the Union cavalry during the Civil War .The highlight of the afternoon was the annotated photograph Price took of King at the reception in Dr. Lunsford’s home. Unfortunately, the original — probably irretrievable — was kept in a closet bulging with a lifetime of memorabilia. Price thought everyone in the photo had passed, as would King only ten years later.
Later that year, Letha Ridley, the second ever African American principal in the RCSD, died at the age of 104. I found an old photo of Mrs. Ridley bearing a resemblance to a woman in the photo. I called Price. While Charles’ memory was keen, he said it was possible — but could not recall for certain — that Mrs. Ridley was in the photo. Maybe # 6 in the annotated version. She may also have been among the guests who did not appear in the photo. Now, all are gone.
Price’s death also inspired a deep dive into the digital archives of the Democrat and Chronicle where Price is a frequent presence. Occasionally, he is referred to as the first Negro, later Black and then African-American, Rochester police officer.
We first see Charlie during his football days at Madison. In one article, Price — the only Black player on the team — is called the “fleet-footed Negro back.”
In 1948, Price’s induction into the police force was greeted with fanfare.
Early in his tenure, Price helped deliver a baby in the rear of a Highland Hospital ambulance.
As a patrolman, Price was involved in wide variety of criminal cases, including:
“Man Arraigned in Knifing Woman” (1948), “$150 Metal Theft Denied by Pair” (1948), “Pair Accused of Holdup Try” (1948), “3 Seized Here In Death Quiz” (1948), “Gambling House Proprietor Fined” (1948), ”Police Arrest Man for Having Revolver” (1948), “Cigar Deal Seized as 45th in Gaming Net” (1949), “4 Children, 8 – 12, Seized in Store Burglary” (1949), “Buyer Boasting of Bargain Traps 2 as Auto Looters” (1950), “Detectives Hear Tangled Stories On Dual Cutting” (1950), “Jailed Man Rearrested on Brass Knuckles Count” (1950), “Cashing of Check Leads to Arrest” (1950), “Woman Punched in Nose by Man” (1951),“Victim Knifed, Assailant Held” (1953), “Suspect with Knife, Cleaver Surrenders in Dark Tavern”[Clutching a meat cleaver in one hand and a sharp knife in the other, a man stood blinking in the glare of police flashlights in a dark tavern, then shrugged his shoulders and surrendered meekly] (1953), “Robbery Suspect To Be Charged In Mugging Case”(1953), “Quartet Seized In Knife Holdup At ‘Gas’ Station”(1955), 2 Ordered Held for Jury In Jewelry, Shoe Thefts” (1956), “Lethal Toy Boats Sought As Boy Gulps Camphor” (1956) [City Chemist John A. Temmerman branded the toys “extremely dangerous”, and urged all parents who may have bought the Japanese-made novelties to dispose of them.] “Man, 51, Arrested On Morals Charge” (1956) [The man was charged with second degree rape involving a 12 year old girl], “Arson Squad Finds Evidence in 5 Blazes, Hints at 2 Firebugs” (1957) [Beneath the headline read: What Makes a Firebug? A Psychiatrist’s View, Page 15], “Two Brothers, Friend Accused in TV Thefts”(1958),” Youth’s Deadly Experiments Broken Up by Policemen”(1958) [The boy had collected a rich supply of chemicals, some of them from a school laboratory, experimenting with them in makings bombs, gases and rocket fuels, and compiling a long list of formulas for TNT, hermit bombs, napalm, and mustard, systemic and goop gases.],”Cops Nab 3 As Suspects In Breakins” (1958), “Check Charge Holds 2 Men”(1958), “6 Unhurt in Crash Of Stolen Vehicle” (1959).
In 1950, “Motorist Shot in Police Chase, Faces 3 Counts,” Price shot and wounded a man in the legs who disobeyed orders to stop. The wounding is the only recorded instance of Price shooting a suspect. In the 2021 D & C article, Price’s daughter, Renee Price, said “When he [her father] retired in 1985 I asked him how many times he had taken out his gun, and he said five times in his entire career.”
Not all the references were to criminal matters.
In 1951, “Mates Give Surprise To Patrolman Price On Eve of Wedding,” Price was telephoned at his home where he was informed: “You’d better get down to headquarters right away. The chief wants to talk to you.” At headquarters, Price was given a cash gift for his wedding.
In 1951, “Dismissed Police Tells His Story to Policemen’s Fraternal Club,” Officer Cyril L. Kastner had been dismissed for insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer for shoving Deputy Chief Harold J. Burns. At the Locust Club, Kastner claimed Burns was at fault. During his defense, “Kastner demonstrated the way he said he was ‘poked in the chest’ by Inspector Burns, by vigorously poking Patrolman Charles Price, who was sitting at the speakers right. Price, who was half asleep at the time, was much surprised.”
In 1956, “6 Saved from Blaze In Apartment Building,” Price, on the scene of a house fire before firemen arrived, went into the smoke-filled building and led 12-year-old Joyce Julian down one of the two rear stairways.
In 1960, “Turkey Saved In Blaze,” when Price owned a home on Morgan Street, a fire broke out in his tenants’ kitchen. Firemen had to cut a hole in the wall to douse the flames. Capt. Thomas McHugh suffered a hand cut. The bird was salvaged; Price said the family took the turkey to the home of a relative and dined there.
In 1956, Price was featured and praised by the D & C and a letter-the-editor writer for his work with 55 students at Franklin High School who proclaimed themselves the Drakes, and were known for causing mischief. (In the photo, all the students are white, so it’s unclear if any Black students were members). Price convinced the “gang” to form a social club for which he was its advisor.
Price’s work with the Drakes prompted his transfer to the police Youth Bureau. As mentioned in the 2021 D & C article, Price typically would talk both of the necessity of a police force, and the necessity of a police force that is part of a community’s fabric and not foreign to the residents.
When in the Youth Bureau, Price was frequently involved in juvenile cases, including:
“Youth, 20, Admits Bottle Assault” (1956), “Bicycle Theft Leads Cops To Roundup of Teen Gangs”(1956), “Cops Halt Fight, Nab 13 Teeners” (1956) [Thirteen teen-agers were locked up on charges of unlawful assembly yesterday after police broke up a fight at Scio and Hartford streets.], “Police Accuse Youth Of Assault Charge”(1956), “3 Teen-Agers Held in 6 Burglaries”(1957), “2 Boys,13, Admit Attack” (1958), “2 Youths Seized In Theft of Guns At Sodus Store”(1958), “2 Youths Nabbed In School Thefts” (1958), “Arrest of 9 as Delinquents Seen Solving 3 Burglaries”(1958), “Mud Traps 3 Boys in Car, String of Thefts Admitted” (1959), “Odd Activities at School 41 Deactivated” (1959) [Patrolman Charles Price did a little investigating and came up with kids allright, but two in particular, one 13 and the other 16. Price said the two lads were top brass in a gang of seven juveniles who had paid five or six nightly visits to the school. They did it mainly for “the heck of it.”], “Arrest Solves of Three Boys Ball Park Theft” (1959) [Youths stole stole three bottles of soda from visitor’s club house at Red Wing Stadium, and climbed in through a second-story window and tried to batter open some vending machines],”Two Youths Held In $32 Cash Theft”(1959),” “Young Tailor, Pal Held In Stealing of Trousers” (1959), Liquor Stolen, Boy Accused” (1960),” 2 Youths Admit Thefts In House Break-Ins”(1960),” Students Cause $125 Bus Damage”(1960) [A Rochester Transit Corp. bus loaded with teen-age spectators from a football game detoured to Police Headquarters when several passengers started trouble about 10 last night.], “Youths Nabbed; 5 Burglaries Said Cleared Up”(1961),” “Boy, 13, Accused Of $50 Theft”(1961), “1 Knifed, Dozen Seized In Youth Gang Fight”(1961), “2 Teachers Assaulted In Franklin Scuffle” (1962) [Price and other officers arrested five youths and charged them with disorderly conduct after they allegedly forced their way into a cafeteria at Benjamin Franklin High School and assaulted two teachers when escorted outside.], “Youth Faces Charge In BB Guns Theft” (1962).
On September 21st 1951, Price was on the scene for one of the most dramatic disasters in Rochester history, sometimes called “Black Friday,” or the “Brighton Blast.” In a series of natural gas explosions, fifteen homes were completely destroyed, sixteen others were seriously damaged, and twenty-three were damaged by fire or flying debris in the neighborhoods surrounding Twelve Corners.In 1957, Price was involved in an odd case of thievery from the poor boxes of St. Anthony’s Church. Price went undercover, apparently stationed in a confessional booth, on the lookout for youths pilfering church donations.
In 1957, Price helped bust Mae Adams, 50, proprietor of the Rochester Wholesale Exchange for distributing “putrid and decayed” candy to children. The tainted candy was originally damaged in a fire at Adams’ warehouse four years earlier, and much was infected by maggots or mold.
In 1959, Price recovered dangerous firecrackers selling for 10 cents, leading to their banning by the City Chemist.
In 1961, Price investigated a murky case in which $440 was stolen from a coal company. The office worker, Theodore Silvio present during the robbery was not sure whether he was struck from behind by an intruder, or suffered a fainting spell. Price and other detectives said the most plausible theory was that Silvio suffered a fainting spell and the office was looted by someone who happened to come in. If an intruder had entered from the side door, which opens into the coal yard, Silvio probably would have been hit from behind. The tone of the article suggests Silvio was involved in an inside job.
In 1961, although the photo caption gives little explanation, Price demonstrated a lie detector test.
In 1962, Price displayed a World War II German army rifle, automatic rifle and machine gun. The owner of the guns had fought in the war, bringing back the weapons as souvenirs, kept for many years in his ex-wife’s attic after their divorce. Two boys, including the women’s son, found the guns, loaded one with 15 bullets, then abandoned the guns, unfired, in a vacant lot. The woman handed the dangerous weapons over to the authorities.
In 1967, Price received a long profile in Jack Turner’s column “Coffee Cup Reading.” Turner asked Price how he felt when referred to as the “first Negro cop.” Price responded: “It was okay in the beginning. But I’m just plain Detective Sgt. Charles Price, period.”
Charlie Took the Dare Reading Time: 3 Mins. 15 sec. (as apparently timed by Turner)
Charlie Price was batting the breeze one day with some buddies in the Third Ward when a funny thing happened, something that changed the course of his hard-working life.
The subject of police officers had come up and one young fellow spat contemptuously. “They don’t want US in the department,” he said. “Openings for colored guys? Ha!”
Price bristled. He already had a pretty fair job at Kodak’s Camera Works. But now he felt a challenge.
“Think I’ll take that Civil Service exam, and pass it,” he announced.
“Man, you gotta be outa your mind,” somebody said. “They’d never take you.”
* * *
BUT CHARLIE PRICE TOOK THE DARE. Never regretted it. He did pass the tests, was sworn in as Rochester’s first Negro police officer, began pounding a beat, took his share of abuse and maybe more, kept looking ahead.
That was nearly 20 years ago.
Today at 44, Detective Sgt. Charles Henry Price is the highest-ranking male Negro in the bureau.
“When I think back,” he said yesterday, “I do sometimes think of the pay security and other benefits I’d be having at Kodak.
“But that dare was a thing I didn’t go along with. I have too much respect for this town. I was born and raised here. So was my dad. And his father before him was an early Rochesterian. I felt then, and I feel now, that if a man has the qualifications and the guts and the desire to become a police officer, he can make it regardless of color.”
* * *
ONE THING DOES BOTHER CHARLIE PRICE. Invariably, when his name is mentioned in connection with a promotion or whatever, that business of “first Negro cop” on the force crops up.
“It was okay in the beginning,” he says. “But I’m just plain Detective Sgt. Charles Price, period.”
Articulate, personable, intelligent, Charlie is almost obsessed with the value of education. He is a tremendous reader and student. He now takes police science at Monroe Community College. He pores a lengthy LaSalle extension course in law.
On his own, he checks Supreme Court decisions with lawyers and judges. . .and on his own, he bought for $49.95 the Lawyers Cooperative “Case Investigation” five-book series.
Sgt. Price (his rank is equivalent to a uniformed lieutenant) constantly impresses on teen-agers that they should try for Regents courses in high school not settle for shop-type classes.
“You’ll never get to college that way,” he warns. “And if you can’t finally walk into a hiring office without a degree in that hot hand, you’re dead.”
Charlie got a tough break himself, educationally.
A graduate of Madison High School, where he was a crackerjack athlete, the young man wanted a degree in physical education. But times were hard; he had to support an aging mother.
His dad, the late Charles Henry Price Sr., was a longtime employe in the Auto License Bureau.
When young GI Charlie steamed Stateside from Europe near the end of World War II (he served in counterintelligence and now is a chief warrant officer in the reserves) and got mustered out at Fort Dix, he hardly could wait to be home again.
* * *
GETTING OFF A NEW York Central train, he hustled directly to the old Courthouse building where his father worked. “I went in with a bag slung over my shoulder and plenty of hard-to-get cigarettes for Dad. I nearly was busting with impatience,” he says.
“Mr. Price working today?” he inquired at a desk. “I’m his boy.”
Charlie received a strange, shocked look. The people hardly knew what to say. Mr. Price had died unexpectedly nearly two weeks earlier.
Numb and crushed, Charlie Price hailed a cab for home and mother, then burst into tears. He hasn’t cried since.
* * *
NOW DETECTIVE SGT. Charlie Price has his own family his wife Pauline, daughter Renee, 13 and daughter Charlene, 12. He bowls some, plays what little golf he can (“once had an 83 on Oak Hill’s west course. How about that?”), works efficiently in the Police Bureau’s sensitive Internal Inspection Office under Capt. Bill Hamill, studies and reads avidly and says proudly:
“Would you believe where my daughters go to school on scholarships? Columbia School.”
After become a detective, Price was involved in many high level investigations, including:
“Lippa Brothers Held After Store Raid”(1967) [The Lippa brothers were known members of the Rochester mafia. Convicted gambler Joseph C. (The Banker or Big Joe ) Lippa and his younger brother Bernard were arrested and about $10,000 worth of gods described as stolen, including pistols and shotgun were seized], “Ad Agency Out $75,000; Former Employee Accused” (1968) [James L. Barry,the former general manager and vice president of Storm Advertising Co., 971 Midtown Tower, was charged in connection with the theft of $75,000 in company funds over the past five years.], “Christmas Shopping Disrupted 13 Arrested in Peace Demonstrations” (1969) [Thirteen persons, aged 12 to 28, were arrested in downtown Rochester yesterday afternoon while conducting what police described as rehearsed, playact Vietnam War demonstrations. Investigators said they were carrying toy guns, knives and other play weapons and some wore parts of uniforms. One carried a large wooden cross with an imitation Viet Cong flag attached to it.] “Gunmen, steal methadone from Strong Memorial” (1980) [armed robbery of 19 ounces of methadone from Strong Memorial Hospital’s methadone clinic was the first armed robbery at either of Rochester’s two methadone clinics in nearly a decade of operation.]
In 1970, Price was named assistant to Police commissioner John A. Mastrella, only referred to in the headline as “Negro.” The May 2nd article mentions the slowness of Price’s promotions –“For Price, the way up has not been meteoric. It’s taken him 22 years to get where he is.” — perhaps attributable to the discrimination he faced.
In 1971, Price was lauded for what today we call community policing.
Only after retirement did Price begin to be more vocal about his experience with bias. In Reginald Fields’ July 25th, 1996, “First black officer viewed racial barrier as challenge,” (part of a long article on the 25th anniversary of the 1964 riots), Price discussed the challenges he faced when climbing the police ranks.
Price also said that while undercover in 1964, he learned that a group of people were planning to riot in Rochester. He shared the information with his superiors, but no one listened and did not prepare. In a 2008 interview with Laura Warren Hill for the University of Rochester’s online project, Rochester Black Freedom Struggle, Price spoke more about the root causes of the riots: “The riots (were) … economic, I would say, and political. People were tired of being denied things that they actually should’ve (had), that was their given rights.”
First black officer viewed racial barrier as challenge
When a friend told Charlie Price that the city would never hire a black police officer, Price decided it was time for a career change.
“That was like a challenge to me,” Price recalled recently.
In 1947, Price left his job as a janitor at Eastman Kodak Co. after he excelled on a police examination. He took a $1,000 pay cut to become the city’s first black officer. He earned $1,600 a year.
Price, now 72, spent 38 years on the force. During that time, he earned the department’s highest honor for saving the life of a fellow officer. He retired in 1985 a decorated captain.
Climbing the police ranks was always a challenge.
Price recalls a time when residents thought he should answer calls at their back doors. He was called the n-word so much that it eventually didn’t bother him, he said. His supervisors overlooked him for promotions. And when finally promoted, he wasn’t allowed to take part in a promotion ceremony at City Hall because of racial unrest during the 1950s.
It would also be years before he earned the respect of fellow officers. While undercover in 1964, Price learned that a group of people were planning to riot in Rochester. He shared the information with his superiors, but no one listened and did not prepare.
“They said ‘Why should we listen to you. We’ve got investigators for that,’ ” Price recalled. “Then it happened and I said ‘I told you so.’
“Price earned a Medal of Valor in 1981 when he and two other officers pulled a wounded officer out of a holed-up bank robber’s line of fire.
Price, a World War II veteran, said of the experience: “It was the only time in my entire career I was nervous and scared.”
A gunman had taken several people hostage inside a Thurston Road bank. Price commandeered a city paving truck.
Price, another captain and a lieutenant backed the truck up to the wounded officer. The gunman opened fire on the truck. Dozens of officers fired back and killed the gunman.
“We were under heavy fire,” Price said. “I remember it sounded like a young war. I said ‘Holy God, I’m back overseas.'”
“They awarded me for saving that officer’s life. But I never forget that those officers out there with me might have saved my life by firing back on the suspect while we were in there.”
Price tells old stories in a positive light, even though there were moments during the early years when he was looked upon as a novelty. But those experiences only made him stronger, he said. Today he often runs into men who credit him with saving their lives when they were younger.
“They tell their kids or wives, ‘This is the guy that helped me out or I would have been in trouble.’ I hear it all the time,” he said. “That makes me feel 10 feet tall.”
Price is also credited with being a recruiter for the department Sgt. Sherman Scott said Price was good friends with his parents. “But I’m not sure they knew he was always trying to talk me into joining the force,” Scott said. “He would pick me up sometimes and just talk about being the police officer and how wonderful it was.”
Genesee Section Capt. Fred Bell said Price was his mentor.
“He brought me on,” Bell said. “I didn’t make it by myself. It was helpful having someone like him to tell you the pitfalls and how to carry yourself.”
In Mark Hare’s 2008 profile, Price did not dwell on his experience with discrimination. Ever optimistic, Price felt that racial prejudice was a fact of life, but hoped it need not be an insurmountable state.
Finally, in May 2012, I attended a World of Inquiry High School forum on the riots of 1964 and related topics including Price as a guest speaker.
Price’s passion for making the world a little better was on full display.
On May 19th, The Minority Reporter published a very informative staff report on Price, Captain Charles Price Remembered as a “Community Treasure,” including a personal reflection of Capt. Price from Tina Chapman DaCosta, a friend to both him and his late wife, Pauline, “Remembering Charles “Chuck” Price, from Tina Chapman DaCosta.”
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