CHESTER — Inside the packed Chester County Courthouse Tuesday, a place so historic in this rural county that it is a national landmark, a place that signified separateness of black and white for so long, a black man with the nickname “Big A” wept.
Alex Underwood did not weep because of trouble with the law, the reason so many blacks had been inside that courtroom that has stood for 161 years.
He wept because in this historic building, just yards from a Confederate cannon parked on the lawn, yards from where so many blacks were hung in awful days of Jim Crow injustice, Underwood was making history himself.
The white man next to him, a policeman, cried, too.
Keith Johnson tried to keep it together, but he looked out at the crowd of black and white and said what needed to be said, barely, because he was crying about change that had come.
“This is a big deal,” Johnson said. He paused a minute before using the vernacular so common: “Who’da thunk it?’
Then Johnson embraced Underwood, who just moments later was sworn in as Chester County’s first black sheriff in a county where almost 40 percent of the people are black.
The sheriff is “the law.” In 2013, Alex Underwood is now “the sheriff.”
There was no sign declaring “first black sheriff,” but you could read it in the eyes and faces of all who stand for a fair shot.
The crowd stood and applauded Underwood, 49, who has worked for the sheriff’s office or the State Law Enforcement Division almost all his adult life. The cops from the sheriff’s office who ringed the courtroom clapped. Those officers are white and black.
The blacks and the whites who sat in the same rows, the public, clapped.
Two little old ladies – one white, one black – held hands.
Sheriff in a rural place is not just a policeman’s job. It is the most visible, most high-profile job in all of Chester County. It is a job held for more than 200 years – since there has been a Chester County – by a white man.
Alex Underwood stood in that courtroom and cried.
He cried because in the front row nine little kids from Chester Park Elementary School clapped. The kids had written reports on Underwood after he was elected in November and he visited the school.
The kids wrote, and the reports were read, about how Underwood would “keep bad people off the streets,” and how, “Mr. Underwood is making history,” and how he is “a great role model.”
One kid, direct, wrote, “Mr. Underwood is our first African-American sheriff. We should help him.”
A 9-year-old black kid named Antoine Campbell-Neal, dressed up with a clip-on tie, said Underwood makes him hope to “dream big.”
Nobody clapped harder than the man who administered the oath of office, legendary former SLED Chief Robert Stewart. Stewart had told the crowd how Underwood had been shot once, in the chest, by a fugitive.
“I thought I got him killed,” Stewart told the crowd.
Only a bulletproof vest saved Underwood all those years ago. Underwood did not quit being a policeman despite getting shot in the chest. And now, retired from SLED, he stood in front of this packed room and promised “to do the right thing.”
“I plan to make Chester again a friendly place, a respectful place,” Underwood said. “Together we can make it happen.”
Underwood spoke, in three short sentences, to this room about race. He bluntly said that the days of race as the deciding factor in how high someone can go in Chester, how big someone might dream, are over.
“It ain’t about black and white,” Underwood told the crowd. “It’s about community. It’s a new day.”
The community on those courtroom benches, and packed in the jury boxes, even standing behind the judge who ran the special ceremony as a court session to be kept in the records of Chester County courts forever, clapped again.
Family Court Judge Brian Gibbons, who presided over the ceremony, told the crowd that Tuesday was “a proud day for those of us who live in Chester County.”
Solicitor Doug Barfield, whose Sixth Circuit includes Chester County, said simply, “This is a big day for Chester County.”
Underwood said afterward, after greeting hundreds of well-wishers, that the fact that he is now a black man in charge does bring “pressure to perform.”
Chester has a tough economy, with employment problems and drug problems and crime problems. The sheriff serves a four-year term with a salary of $57,130, and supervises all deputies who work in law enforcement and workers in the county jail.
“It is something, new for some, to handle,” Underwood said of being the sheriff.
The black sheriff.
Underwood actually took over Jan. 1, so he’s already been the sheriff for a week. Meetings were held, arrests of bad guys made, a few people who did not want to work for Underwood had parted ways with the sheriff’s office.
But Tuesday’s ceremony made it official in front of everybody. In the courthouse with a judge and a court record and hardly anybody noticed the Confederate cannon in front of the courthouse steps.
“Who’da thunk it?” seemed to echo in the air in that courtroom, like a shot from that cannon.
Sheriff Alex Underwood walked out of the building not thinking, but knowing, that anything is possible.
Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 firstname.lastname@example.org