Latasha Everson/The Tifton Gazette
Throughout the month of February, in celebration of Black History Month, The Tifton Gazette will be spotlighting influential individuals in the Tifton community by sharing their stories of discrimination, struggle, success and community involvement.
At age 65, Tifton native Sgt. Lester Cromer, who was a local officer at the Tifton Police Department for 36 years, still remembers the discrimination he received as a Tifton police officer during the early 1970s.
Cromer, who is known by many as “Tot,” became the first black officer to work on day shift at the Tifton Police Department after being hired in 1970 at the age of 21. However, three men before him made history as the first black Tifton police officers during 1968-1969.
Cromer said after returning from Vietnam, he decided to apply for a job at the police department. He had an interview and was hired the same day. He stated that he attended the first organized police academy at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, which was three weeks long back then.
Cromer said it wasn’t easy being a black officer in Tifton during that time.
“We were treated differently — no respect,” he stated.
However, regardless of the struggles that he went through, he remained an officer. He explained that he heard the “n-word” constantly being used within the department, as well as other derogatory names such as “coon.” Cromer noted that “Robert” was also a name that was used to describe black men.
He said black officers were told to patrol the black neighborhoods only. In addition, they couldn’t work the stands at the football games; they had to guard the white players’ locker rooms in the back.
New police cars were given to the white officers to drive and the older models were given to the black officers.
“We couldn’t arrest any whites,” Cromer said.
He stated that a new chief, who had it out for him, came on in June 1986 and fired him after accusing Cromer of sexual harassment against a white woman. He eventually sued the city and won and got his job back.
As time passed, Cromer says he saw more black men and white and black women being hired as law enforcement officers.
While working as a police officer, Cromer also worked in the local school system as a resource officer for 17 years. He stated that for nine months out of the year, he was assigned to a school. He said that in 1992, he and Sgt. Toni Gann, who Cromer considers a good friend, became Tifton’s first school resource officers.
“Toni is a good person,” Cromer said. “She didn’t see any color. We had a good connection.”
He stated that he was assigned to work at the then-Tift County Junior High School, which is now called Tift County High School Northeast Campus, and Gann was assigned to work at the high school. He noted that there were more problems occurring at the junior high school.
Cromer said one of the highlights of his life was when he saw Coach Tommy Blackshear cry and hug his players after they won the state championship in 1996. Cromer escorted the team to Atlanta and back to Tifton.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids come through me,” Cromer said, adding that he sees some of those same students today.
While reminiscing, his mind went back to the 1970s when the schools first integrated. He said there was rioting from blacks and whites at the high school, which is now Eighth Street Middle School.
“Things got a little better after that,” he stated.
Now retired since 2006, Cromer said he misses the students and working with Gann. However, he stays very involved in the community working with the local youth.
“I’ve been involved with kids since I was 21 years old,” he said.
Cromer helps as a senior supervisor over the local basketball team, the Tifton Eagles, which is part of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) — a U.S. based organization dedicated to the promotion and development of amateur sports. Cromer said local children 14-and-under participate in the program during the summer.
“It’s something for the kids to get involved in,” he stated, noting that it also helps to keep them out of trouble.
He said participants have the opportunity to travel to places in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina. He stated that out of 137 teams in the nation, they were ranked in the top 13. They played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
“I love those kids,” Cromer said.
He also supports local athletes by attending football and basketball games. In addition, he was involved in the Tifton Police Department’s summer program; delivered papers for 13 years for The Tifton Gazette; helped with football for about 10 years and umpired baseball for 18 years at the Tift County Recreation Department; and worked with the late Billy Jones, who was over the bailiffs at the Tift County Courthouse. Cromer said he was a bailiff for two years. He stated that Jones and members at his church often helped with sponsoring some of the children in Tifton Eagles.
“He will be missed,” Cromer said.
Another individual who he admired was Coach Arthur Mott, who was named to the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2007. Cromer played baseball, football and basketball, coached by Mott and Lonza Seadrow.
“He helped a lot of kids,” he stated. “He was a dynamic coach and person.”
As a child, Cromer experienced some struggles as well. Born in 1948, Cromer said he and his brothers and sisters didn’t have much growing up. He stated that he’s the baby boy.
“We were a close family,” he said, noting that his sister, Bobby Fitzpatrick of Detroit, has been sending him $2 for his birthday for the last 30 years.
He stated that he was raised in a house on Whiddon Street. He said even though they didn’t have much, his parents, John Wesley Cromer and Louise Cromer, were loving people and took care of their family. His father died at age 69, and his mother died at age 96.
Cromer said his father worked two or three jobs. His mother stayed at home and made sure everything was clean, and took care of him and his siblings. He stated that she would maybe work one day out of the week.
“We had a hot meal every day,” he stated, adding that his mother was a “giving mother.” He said he ate breakfast with her every morning for 20 years up until her death.
Cromer said his father taught him to always treat people the way he would want to be treated.
“My dad never had a high school education,” he stated. “He always instilled in us to treat your fellow man right. He would say, ‘If you don’t work, you’re going to steal; you steal, you’re going to jail. My parents taught me how to work and treat people.”
He commented that they didn’t have a television and he would boil flour in a pot and then use the water to sprinkle on his pants for starch. He and his family grew their own crops to eat, and he remembered picking cotton and tobacco.
“We walked to school every morning,” Cromer said. He noted that he had holes in his shoes and would put pasteboard in them to help fix the problem. Also, he would put wire in the front of his shoes to keep the flaps down. He had about three pair of pants, two or three shirts and one or two pair of shoes.
He stated that all black students attended Industrial Elementary School (now J.T. Reddick Elementary School) from first to seventh grade and Wilson High School (now Matt Wilson Elementary School) from eighth to 12th grade.
He said the black students got the hand-me-down books, while the white students were given new books. The same went for football and baseball uniforms. He said one year, the black football players were given a set of uniforms from Morris Brown. When asked about his feelings toward receiving hand-me-downs, he said that he learned to accept it.
Also, Cromer stated that in September, when school would begin for the year, most black students were in the cotton fields during that time and would start school usually after the cotton had been picked.
“White kids would ride by in the school bus and pick at us,” Cromer said.
He stated that when going to the doctor and dentist, black folks went through the back door and drank from separate fountains. He said he remembers going to an old local burger place and was told to go to the back or side window to order his food. He couldn’t be served from the front window.
“We have made some changes, but we have a long way to go,” Cromer said.
He stated, “Some parents don’t support their kids — you need to care before something happens. Parents and churches need to get more involved. Spend time with them; that’s why they act out.”
With the rising violence in Tifton, Cromer added, “If we don’t do anything, all of our black males are going to end up in jail, prison or the graveyard.”
Cromer is married to Bettye J. Cromer and they have a blended family of eight children.
“She keeps me going,” Cromer stated about his wife. “She is so free-hearted.”
He attends Springfield Baptist Church and has been an usher there for 40 years.
Through all of his involvement in the community, Cromer says if he can just save one child, that’s a plus for him.
To contact reporter Latasha Everson, call 382-4321.