“My very first day I walked in for roll call in Troop B, there was a Shift Lieutenant who walked up to me in front of everybody and told me that this was a white man’s job, ‘We don’t want any niggers here and we are going to get rid of you.’ He spent his whole career trying to get rid of me,” Marcelle recounted. He added that the Lieutenant made it a habit to look through the tickets or arrest reports made by Marcelle seeking out white offenders. If he found them the Shift Lieutenant would routinely contact them and get them to file false complaints reports against Maecelle, attempting to get him fired. The scheme ultimately failed.
First Black State Trooper reflects on dealing with racism
On August 10, 1967, A.Z. Young, president of the Bogalusa Voters and Civic League (BVCL) began a 105-mile march from Bogalusa, Louisiana to Baton Rouge. The ten-day march began with 25 participants but grew to as many as 600 near its conclusion, as they successfully made it to the state capitol. Though the event was organized as a peaceful demonstration in an effort to bring attention to a number of local and state employment discrimination issues, over 2,200 National Guardsmen and policemen were ultimately required to protect the march participants. One of the issues that the BVCL sought to challenge then Governor John J. McKeithen on was integration of the Louisiana State Troopers law enforcement body.
In response to that public challenge, McKeithen stated that he would agree to hire black personnel for the State Troopers, but was unaware of any capable candidates. After watching that statement on television Ernest Marcelle Jr., who had graduated from college with a degree in criminology, had served as a military policeman, and had a previous stint with the New Orleans Police Dept., called the governor and made him aware of his previous experience and a desire to take on a position with the State Troopers. After speaking with Governor McKeithen, Marcelle was told that he would put him in touch with a black attorney working with the governor who would process his information. Following that conversation the attorney told Marcelle that the governor’s office would make contact with him in a few days.
“To be honest I thought that that would be the end of it. But a few days later I did get a letter from the Superintendent of the State Police,” Marcelle said in a recent interview with the Shreveport Sun about his time with the department. “He interviewed me and afterwards I was selected. That was in July (1967) and they gave me a notice to come back in November (training period). There were 39 whites and I was the only black, so of course being the only black in the class it was a little rough. They wanted us to sleep in the barracks together just like it was done in the military. They tried different things to discourage me. They gave a test every Saturday morning and if you failed one you were out of the academy. So one of their strategies was to get me frustrated where I would either fail one of my tests or just quit all together. During that time I did a lot of praying, and I was able to make it through successfully.”
Reflecting on his first days actually serving with the State Troopers, Marcelle said, “They did not want to put me in an (official) uniform so they started me out as a detective working in the Wildlife and Fishery building in the French Quarters in New Orleans. I worked there for about a year and a half, but at the time I was working for a captain who sent me in to Homer, Louisiana to work undercover. I was building narcotics and prostitution cases. My cover involved working in an auto dealership at the time. Nobody (locally) was supposed to know who I was. After building up a bunch of cases over a few weeks, one of the drug dealers that I had built a case on came into a restaurant where I was one morning and called me out by my real name. I ignored him but he told me that he knew who I was. He told me that he knew that I was building a case against him and told me that if I didn’t get out of there in a hurry that I would be going back to New Orleans in a box. He then described the captain that I was working under to me … He (the captain) went to Homer and talked to some of the drug dealers telling them who I was and that I was building cases on them. He felt that the drug dealers would then wipe me out.”
Maecelle said he quickly fled back to New Orleans and tried to contact the Superintendent for the State Troopers regarding what happened, but never was able to reach him. Shortly thereafter he utilized contacts he had with local media outlets in New Orleans and recounted how he was being set up. After gaining some attention with the subject, Maecelle then received a call from the Superintendent who advised him to relocate to Baton Rouge and serve in Troop B, where he remained throughout the rest of his time with the department.
After seven years with the State Troopers, Marcelle was an active participant in the National Association of Black Police officers. He helped to organize his local chapter in 1973. During a convention that he attended in Louisville in 1975, Marcelle and three other black State Troopers that were hired later were approached by a representative from the U.S. Justice Dept. The representative made them aware of an opportunity for the four of them to file suits against the state regarding discriminatory practices. Ultimately Marcelle ended up being the only one of the four troopers to file a suit against Louisiana through the Justice Dept.
After the process became public knowledge Marcelle recalls his time serving on a desolate patrol route during the late evening. Of particular note he felt very odd about a series of communications from his superiors eager to pinpoint his specific location. Feeling that he was being setup for some type of ambush he gave them inaccurate information.
Additionally he recalls several other attempts to sully his official record and his reputation whereby his superiors would tell him that his work schedule had been changed and he would then be reprimanded later for failing to show up for work. Marcelle said that they used a similar scheme — giving him notice that he would be required to testify in court on a particular issue, but giving him the notice after the trial had ended. In conjunction with some other generally minor infractions on his record, for which he never saw his fellow white officers reprimanded, Marcelle was terminated from the Louisiana State Troopers in 1967. This occurred two months before he would be able to qualify for his retirement benefits.
Marcelle recalls being frustrated by the move mostly because he was passionate about his role in the department. During his interview he stated that his time in the department was not always bad, and remembers serving with some decent and fair-minded white colleagues.
Currently Marcelle serves as chaplain of the Disabled American Veterans Association. He also speaks about his time as a State Trooper to various audiences across the state.
by Ronald Collins Jr.
Shreveport Sun News