Macon man honored as first Georgia trooper killed in line of duty

lfabian@macon.comJuly 10, 2013 

For more than 70 years, the heroism of a Macon man appeared to be laid to rest with him at Riverside Cemetery.

William Frederick Black Jr. was the first Georgia State trooper killed in the line of duty.

Although he made quite a name for himself in his early years, the memory of his sacrifice seemed to be lost until Wednesday afternoon, when the bridge at Interstate 16 and Ocmulgee East Boulevard was dedicated in his honor.

As a Lanier High School state champion football player in 1931, “Fred” heard plenty of cheers in his youth.

His athleticism on the gridiron and basketball court carried him on a full scholarship to Alabama Polytechnic Institute, where he got a degree in aeronautical engineering at what became Auburn University.

Long after that applause from the stands echoed into silence, the U.S. Army Reserve officer became one of the first to sign up for the Georgia State Patrol, which organized in 1937.

Now seven decades after an escaped convict cut his life short, the fallen hero is getting a permanent accolade in his hometown.

A couple of years ago, Trooper 1st Class Michael Burns of the Griffin post began researching Black’s life for the recognition ceremony.

Burns, who at 28 is just a year younger than Black was when he died, immediately felt a kinship with the fellow Maconite.

“What I thought was really interesting, at the time there was nothing to honor him,” said Burns, who is the son of retired Macon Police Chief Mike Burns. “There was nothing on his grave stating he was a trooper, nothing showing he was killed as a trooper and nothing mentioning he was the first trooper killed in the line of duty.”

On Dec. 20, 1940, Black and his partner Vass Farr pulled over 28-year-old Charles Clinton Coates, who was weaving in a stolen 1936 Buick on a north Georgia stretch of U.S. 41 in Ringgold.

Coates, whose father was a doctor in St. Joseph, Mo., had already served three prison terms and was awaiting trial for a drugstore robbery when he escaped down a Missouri prison water pipe and hit the road. Fresh from marrying Letha Pauline Brisbine before a justice of the peace in Memphis, Tenn., three days before, the couple was headed to Florida when Black walked up to the car.

The 29-year-old trooper, who was shot and fatally wounded in the chest, chin and thigh, died on the way to the hospital in Chattanooga.

In Hawkinsville that next morning, a beautifully bright sunrise was dawning at the duplex where 9-year-old Glenn Mitchell lived with his family and grandmother, Black’s aunt.

His grandmother was an early riser.

She heard the news on the radio and called to Mitchell’s mother, Evelyn, in the kitchen.

“Eb, Eb, Fred’s been shot,” Mitchell recalled hearing.

In the commotion, the details of the incident were lost.

The whole family gathered around the radio and learned of Black’s fate during the next news broadcast, Mitchell said.

“We were just overtaken,” Mitchell said before the ceremony at the Grand Opera House, where a 1937 Ford was parked out front with dozens of modern Georgia State Patrol cars for the motorcade to the sign unveiling and wreath laying.

Mitchell, now 81, traveled from Cedartown to Macon for the ceremony to honor his second cousin, who left behind a widow, but no children.

Mitchell has helped keep Black’s memory alive and is grateful for the permanent recognition.

The day after Black died, he was posthumously promoted from corporal to sergeant due to his “tireless efforts” and “valiant courage,” said Georgia Public Safety Commissioner Lon Sullivan.

Coates was convicted of Black’s murder and died in the electric chair in March of 1943.

When former Georgia Public Safety Commissioner Bill Hitchens joined the force in 1969, he took notice of Black’s portrait, but didn’t know his history until a recent newspaper account.

In 2010, on the 70th anniversary of Black’s death, Telegraph columnist Ed Grisamore shed light on the trooper’s accomplishments.

The last lines of the column asked: “Does anyone know of a memorial or anything named in Black’s honor in Macon? If not, why not?”

During Hitchens’ tenure as commissioner, he launched an effort to honor all troopers and GBI agents killed in the line of duty.

“I think we ought to remember everybody,” Hitchens told Black’s family. “It’s a real price to pay not only for them, but for their families.”

Hitchens is now a state representative.

The Georgia Legislature has already voted to honor 11 of the state’s fallen officers and there are plans to recognize the 14 others in the next session, said Col. Mark McDonough the current commissioner, who has taken up Hitchens’ quest.

Capt. Nikki Renfroe, of the Forsyth post, organized the formal ceremony at the Grand Opera House, which included a video presentation in tribute to Black.

Those in attendance traveled by bus to the sign dedication, and on to Riverside Cemetery for a wreath laying, GSP flyover and taps.

McDonough said the recognition motorists will notice traveling the highway is also in honor of current men and women keeping Georgians safe.

While crime rates are down, violence against officers is on the increase, he said.

“This is not a wake, not a memorial service. This is a celebration of dedication and sacrifice and a remembrance to the rest of our employees just how dangerous this job can be.”

Information from The Telegraph archives contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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