BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — A deputy that paved the way for African Americans to enter law enforcement died this week.
Joseph Lee was the first Black deputy for the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in the 1950s. Lee quickly became a role model for those at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and in the community.
“I thank Mr. Joe Lee for what he did in this community, paved the way in the community, and made the way dealing with a lot of African Americans in the community,” said Captain Joe Smiley with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.
Lee also worked alongside the first Black Panama City Police Officer J.C. Wilson. He broke barriers for Black officers, which wasn’t an easy task in the 1950s and ’60s.
Smiley said he often spoke of the struggles that came with being the first black deputy.
“These guys did a lot in our community, they made ways that during the time in the ’50s was hard times,” Captain Smiley said.
Back in those days, Black officers weren’t allowed to arrest white people and Smiley said that was hard for Lee. He also said Lee worked hard to earn the respect of the Black community, but it didn’t take long to gain their trust.
“A lot of people trusted Joe Lee,” Smiley said. “They could go to them about things, a crime that took place in the community, they know if they can go to Joe Lee he would make a way for it. They can trust him anytime someone like Joe Lee in the community, you can go to him and trust him.”
Smiley added that Lee’s success opened the door for others to step through.
“When I came to the sheriff’s office it was just me and now I look around and thank God for our sheriff and our former sheriff,” Smiley said. “I thank God for them because they made a way for a lot of African American deputies to get hired here.”
Lee’s commitment to Bay County and willingness to do what others had not, made it possible for Smiley’s dreams to come true when he became the first Black captain at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.
“Thanks to Joe Lee for making my dream, thanks for helping out in the community, making an impact in the Glenwood area. I thank him for that I thank him for the love and kindness he has shown to me growing up. Inspiring me to become what I am today, and I thank him for that,” Smiley said.
Lee was known for his selflessness and desire to go above and beyond for the community.
“He had a big heart. I mean he would give someone the shirt of his back. He was that type of person,” Smiley said. “He would give his all and, ya know, he loved the Lord as well. He loved the Lord, he loved the community, and he loved the people in the community.”
Joseph Lee was 96-years-old.