One day in the spring of 1955, Milton McConnell — a towering figure at 6 feet 5 inches — was walking down Broad Street when Rome’s police chief stopped him.
The chief told the black tailor, “You look like you would make a good policeman.” Apparently Milton McConnell thought he would make a good officer too, because on May 13, 1955, he became the first black man to join the Rome Police Department.
“That’s how it happened,” recalled Belinda McConnell, his daughter. “He really enjoyed it.”
He was also possibly the first in-house tailor, as he often volunteered to make alterations to uniforms when they were needed. He mainly worked the evening shift, but on Tuesdays she said he would take the kids to the movies or baseball games.
This quiet and caring man did not go to any police academy — there wasn’t one — so any training was received on the job. Current Rome police investigator Randy Gore — who has been compiling a history of the department and came across Milton McConnell’s story through his daughter — said at that time new officers would get a gun from a pawn shop and report for duty.
Prior to integration in the late 60s, Belinda McConnell said her father, along with Frank Jones, another black officer hired around that time, weren’t allowed to make calls by themselves. And they couldn’t arrest or stop any white person at that time, she said.
“That was during those times,” she said. As she was a kid growing up, he was a policeman during the civil rights movement.
When black high schoolers staged sit-ins at local restaurants, Belinda McConnell said she and her brother weren’t allowed to participate.
“He would lose his job if we would happen to get arrested for things like that,” she said. “As a kid I had to really walk a straight line.”
Her father never spoke in specifics about his work, but he was a man who always wanted to take care of people, that much was clear to the young Belinda McConnell. He taught people to drive, and even though the family only had one car — a Buick — he would lend it to neighbors when they needed it. But he would also pile people in the car to take them to Vacation Bible School or wherever they needed to go.
Milton McConnell tried to reach kids and help them in any way he could, taking them to school or finding them clothes.
“Whatever their needs were he’d take care of them,” Belinda McConnell said, adding he’d be the one to go to school to take the fingerprints of kids for their school identification.
She recalled a little boy one day excitedly shouting out, “There’s a policeman, a policeman,” when he saw her dad.
“The people in the black community knew who he was,” she said. “He was my idol.”
These works of community service never made the Rome News-Tribune until after the 60s, Belinda McConnell said, adding that black officers weren’t allowed to be written about. But the black community had its own paper and he was featured there, she continued.
“He was kind of like a motivator for some of the other police (black police officers),” who followed him, Belinda McConnell said. They looked up to him and followed his example in joining the force.
On the day of her prom, when she was a senior, Belinda McConnell said her father kept asking her what time it was going to start, not providing any allusion to his presence there. So to her surprise when she showed up, there was her father, towering over everyone, and working as a chaperone — he frequently did security work in the community.
Milton McConnell’s last day with the department was Oct. 23, 1970, over 15 years since he joined. He had died from a blood clot following a gall bladder surgery he had days before. He was 42 and his daughter had just turned 18