* This story includes archival articles that contain outdated cultural depictions some may find offensive. *
GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - The Gulfport Police Department has been diving deeper into its past, trying to find out more about the officers that helped to shape the department into what it is today.
Two officers in particular have stood out in the department’s history and Gulfport Police are now asking for help from the public to find out more about them.
“We have been fortunate in this building to recognize a lot of historically significant people in the history of our police department,” Chief Papania about Gulfport Police Department’s downtown headquarters.
However, there are two officers who haven’t yet received proper recognition, said Papania.
After a chance encounter with a woman named Geraldine Durr, the police chief started on a quest to find out more information about Gulfport’s first two black police officers.
Geraldine Durr is the daughter of one of them, Zachariah H. Durr. The other officer was a man named Malachi K. Lee. Both men were sworn in as Gulfport police officers in March 1949.
“I think it’s an important part of our Gulfport police history, and I would like to recognize these two officers,” Papania said.
Through research, the department found that Durr and Lee shared a patrol car and worked together, patrolling historically black neighborhoods in Gulfport. The chief says being a black police officer in South Mississippi in 1949 would have been no easy job.
“It required a lot more courage to come into law enforcement. In those times, there was a lot of controversy about whether or not they could enforce laws on white citizens,” said Papania. “And, in reading the efforts these two men did just in their first few months of work... They worked together in a patrol car and they went throughout the city. They were designated to work in our black communities.”
“There are several articles that we found that gave them accolades for the arrests they were making and the hard work they were putting in. and you know, I just look back at that time and what a challenge it would have been and they took it head-on and everything indicates they did a fantastic job.”
Newspaper articles help tell the story of the two men. Additionally, the Durr family was able to provide more information about Zachariah, including photographs.
Little information, however, is known about Malachi Lee.
“As of yet, we have not been able to find a family member or photograph of Malachi Lee,” said Chief Papania.
Based on historical records, the police department knows that Lee died of a heart attack in July 1950 and was buried in Mt. Olive, Mississippi. Gulfport City Council minutes reveal that, while Lee died of a heart attack, he died while on the job and his death was deemed as in the line of duty death. His wife Olivia Hall Lee received relief payments from the city after his death.
The Gulfport Police Department would like to honor both Durr and Lee as the department’s first black officers, and officially recognize Lee’s line of duty death.
“Malachi Lee was a line of duty death, one that we have historically never known about or recognized,” said Papania. “Every May, we do a police officer memorial and Malachi Lee will be remembered.”
The hope is to be able to invite family members of the two officers but, so far, they haven’t found anyone related to Malachi Lee. If you have any information about Malachi Lee and can help Gulfport Police, please contact the department by calling 228-868-5900.