A shadowbox in the lobby of the Chapel Hill Police Department holds a small plaque, a photo and a detective badge for Theodore Roosevelt Cole Jr., who was killed in 1969 on the day of his promotional ceremony to become Chapel Hill’s first Black detective.
On June 4, 1969, Cole was working in his yard when Amos Baldwin drove to his house and fired a 12-gauge shotgun at him without provocation, according to archives from the Chapel Hill Weekly. Baldwin had been arrested by Cole multiple times, and reportedly still held a grudge for a speeding violation in December. Cole was 26 years old.
“It was a sad day in Chapel Hill,” Howard Lee, mayor of Chapel Hill from 1969-75, said.
Baldwin was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was granted parole in 1988 and died in 2001.
Lee was never able to meet Cole, but heard about him through the police chief at the time, William Blake.
Lee said Blake’s strong endorsement of Cole as an officer who never shied away from adversity made him confident that the promotion to detective was well-deserved.
Cole’s promotion was one of many firsts for Black leadership in Chapel Hill. In May of that year, Lee was elected as Chapel Hill’s first Black mayor and Braxton Foushee as the first Black member of Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen.
“For the first time, the Chapel Hill Black community started to feel some sense of hope that the problems within that section of town, which is the west section of Chapel Hill, would finally get some attention from both Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” Lee said. “It was kind of a revelation to them to believe that finally they would have a voice within government.”
Cole was posthumously promoted to the rank of detective at the First Annual Orange County Peace Officers Memorial Service in May 2012. A year later, his name was added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“We recognized his sacrifice and the work he had done to get to detective at the time,” Investigations Captain Joshua Mecimore of CHPD, who researched Cole’s case in order to submit his name to the Washington D.C. memorial, said.
He said members of the CHPD Honor Guard went to D.C. on the day Cole’s name was added to the memorial.
“We thought that was important, to be there,” Mecimore said.
Det. Cole is also honored annually at the Orange County Peace Officer Memorial Service on May 15.
Cole has few surviving relatives, but officers at the CHPD remember him as one of their own.
“The police family here is the majority of the family he has left,” Mecimore said.
Since Cole’s death, Mecimore said the CHPD has worked to improve relations with minority communities in the area with initiatives like diversity recruiting, the crisis unit and community engagement.
“What those who remember him will remember is that he was a trailblazer,” Lee said. “He was expected to be a model policeman who would allow people to feel comfortable with more Black policemen serving the community.”
Cole attended Wake County Schools and served in the Air Force for four years after his graduation. He was an officer with CHPD for four years before his death.
“Anytime a policeman falls in the line of duty, we have an obligation to keep them in our memories and not let their names fade away,” Lee said.
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