PHOTOS Forgotten history: Naples cops piece together ’54 slaying of black officer
By Ryan Mills, Naples News
One struck Officer Carl Strickland in the mouth. The second got him in the head.
As Strickland lay bloody and dying, Wesley ran. Strickland never had time to react, much less time to run.
It was Nov. 6, 1954 — a murder that has long since been forgotten.
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The Naples police department’s honor guard fired a 21-gun salute on a sunny morning in May 2009.
During a brief ceremony, the department rededicated its monument to its only recognized fallen officer, Louie C. Collins, who was killed in 1971 during an accidental shooting at the Fort Myers police academy. About 50 people attended the ceremony, including former Naples police chiefs Gary Young and Ben Caruthers, who laid a wreath at the monument.
Caruthers, 79, wore a button-down suit, while Young, 73, wore his usual Hawaiian shirt.
After the ceremony, during a chat in Chief Tom Weschler’s Office, veteran Naples Officer Bill Gonsalves, 46, ran a rumor that had been swirling around the department for decades past the old-timers.
“I had heard comments years ago that there was another (Naples) police officer killed,” Gonsalves said.
Caruthers recalled that just weeks before he started with the department in November 1954, a black officer, Carl Strickland, had been killed while patrolling McDonald’s Quarters, the infamous white-owned slum for Naples’ black residents.
Caruthers was confident the killing had occurred — Strickland’s story lost to history.
“I was just going to work, and the chief, Cale Jones, was, I remember him doing some things trying to get some kind of money. It was probably for the widow and the little girl,” Caruthers said.
If true, they needed to prove what happened to their fallen brother, and get Strickland the recognition that had eluded him for nearly 60 years. They wanted him not only recognized locally, but to have his name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., and included on the Officer Down Memorial Page website.
“That’s the kind of thing you stop and you say, ‘this man died,’” Gonsalves said. “He gave his life protecting his community, and there’s no recognition of that.”
For more than a year, Caruthers, Gonsalves and Young have taken a journey through Naples’ segregated past, methodically fitting together the pieces of the puzzle that was Strickland’s brief law enforcement career. Along the way they fought with time, struggling to dig up records that have been lost or destroyed over the years, or may have never existed at all.
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The chug of lumbering trains and clucking of chickens filled the air around McDonald’s Quarters in the 1950s.
Located on a sandy, 5-acre plot just north of Central Avenue, McDonald’s Quarters — sometimes known as the colored quarters, or simply the quarters — were originally built to house workers for the old sawmill that once dominated the Naples job market. The land was enclosed on the east, west and north by railroad tracks, and was filled with small homes and duplexes built of wood and block, according to city records.
Through the years, McDonald’s Quarters has been described as “ramshackle” and a “dilapidated shanty-town slum.” It was this small neighborhood Strickland was paid $50 a month to patrol part time in mid-October 1954, making history as Naples’ first black officer.
At a City Council meeting, then-Mayor W. Roy Smith had suggested hiring a “colored officer” to tackle disturbances in “the negro area,” according to the Oct. 19, 1954, edition of the Collier County News. Strickland wasn’t issued a uniform because, as Chief Cale Jones said at the time, “a uniform would stick up out there like a sore thumb.”
Like all southern towns in the 1950s, Naples was segregated.
The city’s small population of black residents made whatever living it could working on the railroad and doing menial labor as gardeners and cooks for wealthy seasonal residents, said David Southall, the curator of education at the Collier County Museum.
“People got along pretty good,” said the Rev. Joe Williams, 73, who moved to Naples in 1957 and lived in McDonald’s Quarters. “I knew how it was, and I accepted it.”
Black residents knew where they could go and where they couldn’t. A black officer like Strickland could never arrest a white man.
“They were almost like aliens in their own land,” Southall said. “People accepted black folks, but they had to pretty much stay in their own place.”
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John Wesley intended to kill someone.
After about a month on duty, Strickland, 49, happened upon a fist fight between Wesley, 52, and Clifford Houston on a Saturday, just before 10 p.m., according to newspaper accounts from November 1954.
Strickland broke up the fight, and Wesley and Houston appeared to have obeyed his orders to go home, according to newspaper accounts. But Wesley had other intentions, and went home to get his .38-caliber pistol.
As Strickland walked between two houses, the Collier County News reported, Wesley ambushed him. The Fort Myers News-Press had a slightly different account, reporting that Wesley intended to kill Houston, but first encountered Strickland who “accosted him.”
Wesley fired twice, shooting Strickland in the mouth and head.
He later claimed, according to the News-Press, that he saw Strickland reach for his pistol. However, Sheriff Roy Atkins said at the time that Strickland’s body was found with a shining flashlight in his right hand, and the strap on his holster fastened.
Wesley ran from the scene.
For nearly two days an intense search ensued for Wesley, who narrowly avoided capture despite the use of a bloodhound, newspapers reported. Around noon on Monday, Wesley — who was hungry and had no food — walked to a home near Rosemary Heights and surrendered.
He was transported to the Everglades City jail and charged with first-degree murder.
One month after making history as Naples’ first black officer, Strickland became the first Naples officer killed in the line of duty.
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Today, Strickland lies under an empty patch of grass and ant hills.
On a late September morning, a Fort Myers city worker walked out in the rain in the Woodlawn Cemetery and jammed a metal rod into the soggy ground. This, he said, is the approximate location of block 3, section 209, space 6 — Strickland’s grave.
Located a couple of blocks north of what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard on Henderson Avenue in the Dunbar neighborhood, the Woodlawn Cemetery is a section of the larger Fort Myers Cemetery that was used exclusively for black burials. Established in 1915, today the cemetery is marked by cracked, concrete tombs and crumbling headstones.
But there is no headstone on Strickland’s grave.
“Perfect, indicative of the ghost we’ve been chasing,” Young wrote in an e-mail.
Cemetery records indicate that Strickland was buried by Sears Funeral Home, which matches information included in newspaper accounts of his killing. Strickland’s death certificate, which Gonsalves dug up, lists his cemetery as Woodlawn.
The only hiccup is the date on the cemetery records, which indicate that Strickland died on Jan. 10, 1955, more than two months after he was actually killed on Nov. 6, 1954. A newspaper obituary says his funeral was Nov. 13, 1954.
“That’s him,” said Southall, who attributes the two-month difference to lackadaisical bookkeeping.
There may have once been a wooden cross or marker on Strickland’s grave, Southall said.
“How long does wood last in Florida? What, maybe a year, and then it’s gone,” he said.
Strickland deserves better, Caruthers said.
“Somebody should put a stone there at the cemetery,” he said. “We just have to take up a collection among police officers.”
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By late summer, other pieces of the Strickland puzzle started falling into place.
In addition to Strickland’s death certificate, which showed that he was born in Cincinnati and had lived in Naples for seven years, Gonsalves located Strickland’s employee record card identifying him as a “police spec” and “night officer,” a 1957 city directory that listed Mary Strickland as Carl’s widow and a maid in McDonald’s Quarters, and records of arrests made by Strickland in October and November 1954, showing he had arrest powers.
Young found that Strickland had a couple of mentions in the book “We Also Came,” by local historian Maria Stone, documenting the early black experience in Naples. In the book, John Salters identified himself as the second black police officer in Naples and Strickland as the first, adding: “He got killed.”
“We didn’t wear uniforms on the police force but we did have a badge, a pistol, and a blackjack,” Salters told Stone.
Young’s wife dug up Wesley’s court file, which showed that he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The Florida Department of Corrections could find no records of whatever happened to him.
Still, Young believed they had enough to prove Strickland was killed in the line of duty.
“He may have been part time, but he’s full-time dead, right?” Young said. “He didn’t have a uniform, but he had a body they could shoot at. It’s part of the police department’s heritage and their history. And if there’s a relative anywhere, or even people that knew him or people that knew people that knew him, they deserve to see his name up there.”
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Margaret Hamilton has clear memories of a maroon car.
She remembers driving around with Carl Strickland on sweaty summer days selling chickens and eggs. He called her “Boo.”
“He loved me a lot,” she said. “He used to take me everywhere he goes.”
Born May 9, 1949, to an unwed teenage mother, Hamilton isn’t related to Strickland by blood. But soon after she was born, she was informally adopted by Mary and Carl Strickland, who had no children of their own, she said.
Hamilton never knew her biological father. Strickland is her dad.
“My dad was crazy about me,” said Hamilton, now 61.
Hamilton was only 5 years old when her dad was killed. Things changed after that. Her mother worked six or seven days a week as a maid to support her, she said.
“My mom, she took it hard,” Hamilton said. “I was a little child. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Hamilton has lived a difficult life. She’s been married a couple of times and isn’t even really sure what her legal name is anymore. Eventually she got mixed up with drugs and crime.
Collier County Sheriff’s Office and Naples Police Department records show she was arrested about a dozen times since the mid-1990s on charges of shoplifting and buying and selling crack cocaine. She spent about four years in prison between 2003 and 2007, and has been bouncing between halfway houses in Charlotte County for a few years, getting clean.
She hopes to move back to Naples for Christmas. Young, Caruthers and Gonsalves hope to meet her when she does.
She also hopes to visit her dad’s grave someday.
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There are 18,983 names of fallen officers — including Naples Officer Louie Collins and 10 Collier deputies — etched on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
Caruthers, Gonsalves and Young are hoping there is room for at least one more.
The deadline to apply for inclusion on the wall in spring 2011 is Dec. 31. They get about 130 applications for old cases every year, said Carolie Heyliger, research manager for the memorial.
“The departments send us information, family members send us information, amateur historians send us information from all over the country,” she said.
At this point, the biggest unanswered question is, why did it take 56 years?
Was it just a different time when communities had to move on faster and memorializing fallen officers wasn’t as common as today? Or was it because Strickland was black, and had only been on the force for a month?
“I don’t think it was because he was black. I don’t believe that,” said Williams, who, like a handful of old-timers in the Naples black community, has heard of Strickland. “It probably was they just overlooked it, I guess.”
Its a matter of how, not if, the department will finally recognize its fallen hero, Chief Weschler said. There are no known photographs of Strickland.
“We haven’t determined if we’ll change (the monument) to have two plaques on one, or create something new,” he said. “We’ll have some type of recognition out in front of the police station.”
To Gonsalves, the whole journey was about doing what was right for a fallen brother.
“He was murdered doing the job that it doesn’t matter if you’re white, you’re black, you’re Hispanic, whatever. You should be recognized,” Gonsalves said. “It’s not the color of his skin, it’s not the gender, it’s not any of that that matters. It’s the job, what your profession is. And his profession was a night watchman or police officer in McDonald’s Quarters. It’s respect, to show that his life meant something to the community, besides just to his family.
“It’s the acknowledgment that the person doing his job, being paid to do this job, was killed,” Gonsalves said, “and I would hope that if the roles were reversed that someone would have looked to see what happened to me.”