Fort Mill Times

Segregation was still the law when Fort Mill hired its first African-American cop

Wardell Kiser, top left, Fort Mill Police Department's first African-American police officer, started his career with the force in the mid 1950s.
Wardell Kiser, top left, Fort Mill Police Department's first African-American police officer, started his career with the force in the mid 1950s. Contributed by Fort Mill Police Department

In the mid 1950s, long before schools integrated in South Carolina, the town hired Wardell Kiser – its first African-American officer.

Kiser’s daughter, Alma Kiser-Strait, 73, said then Fort Mill Mayor Luther Patterson encouraged her father to apply for the job. Before long, the Fort Mill Police Department was integrated, even if its public schools were not.

“People were proud to have a black policeman in the community,” she said. “And they all looked up to him and gave him a lot of respect. They looked at him as an example of how they could be. They gave him the nickname ‘King,’ because he was so nice, he was so strong.”

Kiser’s character, both as a father and as an officer, was firm, yet kind. He made sure all of his 12 children attended church every Sunday and he taught them to have compassion for others – to never think of themselves as better than others.

“He was always fair with people. He’d give them a chance, he’d talk to them,” Kiser-Strait said. “He’d tell them, ‘Now you go on home. If you don’t, I’m going to have to lock you up.’ And he’d only have to tell them one time because daddy always meant what he said.”

She still remembers running out to the road at the age of 12, to catch a glimpse of her father engaged in a car chase.

“I said, ‘There goes my daddy. Somebody done did something,’” Kiser-Strait said. “And my friend said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Mr. Kiser will get him. He knows how to do it.’”

Marvin Godfrey, 84, was a patrol officer with the Fort Mill Police Department from 1956 to 1958, during the last years of Kiser’s career. Although he never served by Kiser’s side, he was familiar with the officer’s reputation. Both men worked under police chief Heyward Adkins.

“Chief Adkins ran a pretty tight ship,” Godfrey said. “He expected us to carry out the law to the best of our ability and if we couldn’t do it, he would do it. Officer Kiser worked with (Adkins) and if there’d been anything out of order, he wouldn’t have lasted.”

By the time the two men met, Kiser was ready for retirement. Godfrey said Kiser represented the department well, he demanded respect and he gave respect.

“He probably had more respect in the black neighborhood than any man ever could have,” Godfrey said. “When he spoke, people listened. He would do whatever the situation demanded, but not more. He was a very good man.”

Kiser-Strait hopes that her father helped pave the way for other black men to serve on the police force.

In honor of Black History Month, the Fort Mill Police Department recognized Officer Kiser for his service through a Facebook post last week.

Lt. Steven Bivins said the town of Fort Mill has a unique and special history, and the police department is a part of that history.

“Our goal was, and is, to recognize the officers who have faithfully served the Fort Mill community,” Bivins said. “Officer Wardell Kiser should be remembered for his service and his place in our history, and our Facebook post was our attempt to honor that service and remember his legacy.”

Stephanie Jadrnicek: