Life of one of Durham’s first black officers celebrated

Jan. 07, 2013 @ 01:30 PM

He walked the beat at night until 2 a.m. in Hayti.

No, he couldn’t drive a police car. Black police officers weren’t allowed to have cars.  When he went to his department’s headquarters, he was told he could only enter through the basement. He had no locker, no office space, couldn’t use the drinking fountain and couldn’t use the white man’s bathroom.

Yet he and his fellow Hayti police officers are credited with defusing racial tension in Durham as black people began struggling for their rights.

The life of Benjamin Harrison McClary was celebrated Sunday during services at West Durham Baptist Church. He was one of the first black police officers with the Durham Police Department. He died New Years Day at the age of 96.

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez told McClary’s family and friends that it was men like Officer McClary who opened doors for minorities and women.

“The reality of it all is that I’m here in this position because of men like Officer McClary,” Lopez said. “I’ve been able to get to where I’ve gotten to because of men like Officer McClary. The only reason I was seen was I was able to stand on the shoulders of men like Officer McClary.”

In a proclamation from Durham Mayor Bill Bell, read by Mayor Pro-Tem Cora McFadden, it stated that in July 1944, Durham’s first two African American officers were hired at the request of North Carolina Mutual founder C.C. Spaulding. Mr. McClary joined the small Hayti police force in 1948.

Officer McClary and the other officers in the Hayti police experienced discrimination from their own department, yet they kept on and kept working, trying to build trust and respect with the people in the community, trying to make the Hayti community safer for the people who lived there.

“Durham was spared the violent race riots experienced by many cities across the nation in large part due to the presence, courage, honor and integrity of Officer Ben McClary and fellow Hayti police officers,” the proclamation stated.

Lt. Robert Gaddy spoke at the services, telling the story of how he got to know Mr. McClary, who played checkers at a barbershop that Gaddy frequented.

“I knew that he was a police officer,” Gaddy said.

But later he learned the significance of Officer McClary’s service to the community.

“It’s not often that you get the chance or pleasure of interacting with someone that has a part of such a significant movement,” he said.

In addition to the honor and respect that Mr. McClary received from the law enforcement community, his family members spoke of the tall, good looking and smiling man who they loved and adored.

He was always sharply dressed, “clean as a tack,” and wore starched white cotton shirts.

He couldn’t be beat in checkers, and beat his opponents with swagger and style.

His favorite song was, “The Lord is Coming,” which was sung by Bryan Umstead during the service, as people in the pews clapped and sang along.

In the eulogy, the Reverend Doctor Terry Thomas compared Mr. McClary and his fight against injustice and discrimination to the story of David and Goliath.

“Ben McClary had to do what he did because of who he was,” Thomas said.