First black sheriff in Tennessee retires
Posted: Monday, September 6, 2010 8:02 pm
By MARIANN MARTIN
The Jackson Sun
BOLIVAR (AP) — One of the first things Hardeman County Sheriff Delphus Hicks Jr. wanted to do after he recently turned in his badge was change his cell phone number.
“It’s going to be good not to get those calls in the middle of the night,” Hicks said. The 71-year-old leaned back in his office chair, where he has spent countless hours. The only sign of his age can be seen in his snow-white hair.
Hicks, who retired on Tuesday, spent more than 40 years in law enforcement and 24 years as sheriff of Hardeman County. When he took office in 1978, he was the first black sheriff to be elected in Tennessee.
He served as sheriff from 1978 to 1994 and again from 2002 until 2010. This year he lost his bid for re-election to John Doolen. “I’m ready for this I’ve spent most of my life serving the public,’ Hicks said. “What I have left, I want to share with my family.”
Jimmie Leach, a retired Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent who worked with Hicks for many years, called him one of the best investigators he has ever met.
“I don’t know how many times he and I saw the sun come up together, working on a case,” Leach said. “He taught me a whole lot he didn’t mind working.”
The day Leach first heard Hicks’ name was when Leach was promoted to the position of special agent for Hardeman and Fayette counties in 1978, the day Hicks was sworn in as sheriff.
“I went home that day and picked up a copy of The Jackson Sun and saw the story,” Leach said.
Hicks always had a sense of humor and truly cared about people, Leach said.
“It was obvious he was sincere, and that would make people want to talk to him,” Leach said.
Willie Spencer, Hardeman County mayor, said the thing that has impressed him most about Hicks is how respected he is in the community.
“He is involved in things you can be at an activity in any part of the county and he will be there sharing with individuals of all ages,” Spencer said. “You can tell he is interested in people they know he cares.”
In one of his final days in office, Hicks took the time to share memories of those 40 years the good and the bad.
When he began as a part-time deputy in 1967, the department only had two or three people working, and when he began full time in 1973, there were four men.
The sheriff and his family lived in the building at the time, with the sheriff’s wife cooking for jail inmates and answering the phone.
Deputies often worked 12-hour shifts, and overtime was unheard of, Hicks said. “We were almost like brothers if someone needed off, we’d fill in for him,” Hicks recalled. “I’ve seen lots of changes.”
As he talked, Hicks asked his secretary to find an intake card used back in the 1970s — a yellowed card about the size of an index card that contained the person’s name and the charge, but little other information.
Back then, officers would get paid per arrest, Hicks said, something he was happy to see changed.
“If you wasn’t real honest, you could make some money that way especially since the deputies didn’t get paid much,” he said.
Hicks said he is thankful that he was never placed in a situation where he had to shoot someone, although one day he came close to being shot himself.
Hicks and his partner were arresting someone when the man turned his back and reached for his waist. Hicks was near enough to grab the man with both arms and take away the 9 mm gun the man had tried to get.
“He had pretty mean streak in him I believe he would have killed us both,” Hicks said.
Hicks also remembered the time he and his partner arrested seven or eight people for gambling. They only had one patrol car and no one to call as a backup to help transport the people.
“We told them, ‘you all meet me at the jail,’ and we left,” Hicks said. “They showed up at the jail about the same time we did, posted bond and went about their business. When I tell the young guys about that, they can’t believe it happened.
“I’ve found that how you treat people is how they respond to you people remember that.”
Even though Hicks was the first black sheriff to be elected in Tennessee, he said his focus was on doing his job.
“I’ve always had good support from both races,” he said. “It wasn’t about race it was about doing what I needed to do.”
Those who worked with him and know him agreed.
“He sends a message that you really can achieve any goals in life,” Spencer said. “He worked hard to prepare himself and proved he had the required skill sets.”
Leach said the issue of race rarely came up doing all his years of working with Hicks. Sometimes people would make remarks to Hicks, but he always ignored them, Leach said.
“The people that were with him would get more upset than he did,” Leach said. “His focus was never on anything but being a faithful servant.”
Last week when Leach went by Hicks’ office to wish him well in his retirement was the first time the two ever had a racial discussion, Leach said.
“I told him I was proud of him and what he had done,” Leach said. “Delphus Hicks is walking history.”
Published in The Messenger 9.6.10