ST PAUL, Minn. —
In the heart of the Rondo Neighborhood, thousands of cars drive along Montgomery Avenue. But few travel streets bearing their own name.
Deborah Montgomery, whom everyone calls Debbie, is among the chosen.
“I am very honored. I was the first female police officer hired by the St. Paul Police Department back in 1975,” she said.
And it is a job she never wanted. She had a gig working for then Mayor Lawrence Cohen.
“It was a court order. In 1971 the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Paul. At that time they had four African Americans and 600 police officers,” she said, adding a settlement required the department to hire more black officers.
When she attended the police academy, candidates only needed a GED. But Montgomery had a masters degree. She passed every test required to enroll, including the West Point physical agility test.
“We had a demonstration test and physical agility test. We had to run 25 yards and get over a four foot fence, six foot wall, climb a ladder and go down and do a cylinder,” she said. “We had 2,000 people that signed up for the test, 450 were women. I was the only woman that passed and only eight men did better than I did.”
Before Montgomery, there were no female patrol officers. She said one of the black candidates dropped out before the academy was to start. Her boss, Mayor Cohen, called asking her to fill the role because academy couldn’t start without enough black candidates.
“I was only supposed to be there for two weeks. It was a $10,000 pay cut and he said, ‘Don’t worry you will be taken care of.’ Be suspect of politicians but at the end of two weeks I was at the top of my academy,” she said. “I had a reputation of competing against and with men my whole life,” she said. “It turned out to be a blessing. God works in mysterious ways.”
And because she was on top she couldn’t quit. She felt the push to stand up for other women by staying. She didn’t want people to say a woman couldn’t handle the job. Let alone a black woman.
Montgomery’s story is part of the history hanging on the walls of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St Paul. On one wall highlighting Rondo community members, there’s a photo of Montgomery speaking to young children. During her tenure with the SPPD, she was known as ‘Officer Friendly’ and worked with the DARE program, aimed at keeping kids off of drugs. Those were some of her fondest memories. But she also recalls the racism she experienced while protecting and serving. She says white officers had partners. Black cops patrolled alone. Montgomery worked the midnight shift and was assigned to patrol Rice Street.
“Blacks had these one cars. It was the first car out. They had color coded the black officers,” she said. “There was nobody coming to back you up.”
She fought to make a difference long before she wore a blue uniform or badge.
Raised by her grandparents in Rondo, she started fighting for civil rights as a teen. At 17, she was the youngest person elected to serve on the national board for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“I did the march on Washington in 1963. I did the 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 for voting rights. I marched with Dr. King as freshman at the University of Minnesota,” she said recalling the 10 mile walks over a five day period in the hot sun. “President Lyndon Johnson had the National Guard protecting us as the KKK and folks with the guns on the side of the road were hollering slurs and everything at us.”
“It was intimidating. It was life we just kept marching,” she said.
Now in her 70's, she is still marching. Her fight now is for the future leaders.
“I have a vision to be a resource for our next generation. Build back that village that we are missing,” she said.
Montgomery retired as a commander with the SPPD after 28 years.
Her list of accomplishments show a theme of service. She was St. Paul's first female African-American city council member. She also was one of the first black graduates of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
She holds a master's in public safety and law enforcement leadership from St. Thomas.