As the August Wilson Center for African American Culture’s “The Strength in the Struggle: Civil Rights and Bridge Builders” exhibition concluded in one room, the National Organization of Black Women in Law Enforcement recognized several women for their strength, accomplishments and contributions to their careers and community in another at their Awards Brunch June 30.
The organization honored three women who have overcome adversity in one form or another. The honorees were Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman and Executive Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Shirley Moore Smeal, both for their continued service in the law enforcement field, along with 104-year-old Lillian Allen for her accomplishments as an entrepreneur and author.
“These women are inspirations and (examples) of women who have gone through the struggle to get where they are today,” said Christine Williams, Pittsburgh NOBWLE chapter president and a Pittsburgh Bureau of Police homicide detective. “They surpassed expectations.” She explained that Coleman and Smeal have made great strives to overcome adversity in a male dominated career field of law enforcement. “They have had to get past the barriers of women who did not want them working with their husbands and men who did not want them as partners.”
Allen, from a community aspect, had to overcome the prejudices of not only being a woman, but a Black woman, who was a successful business owner with her beauty salon Back At Your House of Beauty, the only popular Black beauty shop during the 1940s.
When asked of her feelings toward receiving this honor, Allen said, “I was surprised. I couldn’t believe it because all these other women have good jobs and are well educated. I hadn’t done anything special. It means a lot to be singled out and put in the company of these women who had done something.”
Like Allen, Coleman said she was humbled to receive the award, but said it was even more special because it came from her peers. She said it means “people recognize the hard work put forth and people are watching even when you think they’re not. And it shows they are appreciative. It’s refreshing when someone says thank you. I thank God.”
Coleman, who has been a member of law enforcement since 1977 and a chief since 2006, said she feels it’s important for women to be involved in the struggle no matter what their profession because, “we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to someone who came before us. We need to embrace each other. If you can’t pull someone along, then provide them with the resources and tools.”
While the profession of law enforcement lacks women, it also lacks African-Americans. The city of Pittsburgh not only has a Black police chief, but also a Black female assistant police chief. But as a lot of the African-Americans begin to reach retirement eligibility, there will no longer be a great Black female representation on the force.
“In a few years we’ll be back to where we were. Soon these women will be retiring and there will be no one to take their places,” Williams said.
Coleman said, “We are in a better position than before (when it comes to Black female officers on the force) because there are so many there now, but if it continues going at the rate we are now, in years it will be as if there were no Black women on the force.”
Williams said NOBWLE has been involved in trying to recruit more African-Americans and African-American women to the force. She said she has participated in a panel and noticed some increased interest in the force, but nowhere near what is needed.
Coleman said the solution to recruiting more Black women is to, “get back to basics. There’s no special formula. We’ve tried everything. We need to start at a young age and make them aware of the contributions of African-Americans in this profession and get them interested. We (the African-American female officers) need to go into the schools; it starts with education. And we need to rededicate ourselves.”
Along with the awards there was a special presentation on the movement to hire female police officers in Pittsburgh by Alma Speed Fox, a community activist and Patricia Ulbrich, of the Sisterhood Project, along with an inspirational message for women by author Denise Riley-Ajanwachuku.