Gwendolyn Parrish was studying to become a doctor when she met a Baltimore County police lieutenant who was recruiting candidates in her Turners Station neighborhood. At first, she dismissed the idea.
But she eventually became drawn to "a calling to do service for my community and make a difference," Parrish said, noting that the relationship between the historically black neighborhood and police was tense in the 1980s.
So Parrish left the University of Maryland, Baltimore County after three years to pursue a law enforcement career. She was recognized yesterday, nearly 29 years later, for being the first black female sergeant in the Baltimore County Police Department.
Parrish was among five "African-American firsts" in Baltimore County's law enforcement and public safety departments who were honored by the Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in a celebration of Black History Month and the 350th anniversary of Baltimore County.
"The efforts of these outstanding public servants have not only saved lives, but their valor, dedication and outstanding service enrich our Baltimore County police and fire departments every day," County Executive James T. Smith Jr. told about 100 guests at the packed museum in Oella. "Thanks to their hard work and outstanding service, they have created the opportunity for countless talented men and women to follow in their footsteps and serve in positions that would not have been available to them even 30 years ago."
Yesterday's event also recognized Cyril O. Byron Sr., an 88-year-old Windsor Mill resident who served with the Tuskegee Airmen as a grounds crewman during World War II and later became the first black referee for Ivy League football in 1971.
Byron said he applied to be a collegiate sports official for seven years - the first time he was told he was too old - before he was accepted.
"Anytime I walked onto the football field, everything got quiet," Byron said in an interview, recounting the finger pointing and the whispers he faced as a black referee. "I held my shoulders back and my head up and did what I had to do."
Byron also recalled the discrimination he faced during and after the war and said the Tuskegee Airmen fought two wars.
"One overseas and one in the United States, hoping one day we'll see a day like Jan. 20," Byron said, referring to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. "We dreamed of it, hoped for it and prayed for it. I never thought I would see an African-American president after all we've been through."
After receiving degrees in education and science from Morgan State University, New York University and Temple University, Byron taught and served as an administrator at Coppin State University for 23 years. Byron retired in 1985 as associate dean of the division of natural sciences, health and physical education at Baltimore City Community College.
"I always felt lucky. I came back home; others didn't come home or they might have gotten hurt," Byron said.
Jonathan Hart became Baltimore County Fire Department's first black battalion chief in May. He began his career with the county 22 years ago.
"Hopefully, it's an opportunity for others within the organization and outside the organization to see that you can advance the ranks in the Fire Department, the Police Department or any organization," said Hart, a second-generation firefighter. "The opportunities are there."
Hart credited his father, who joined the New York Fire Department in the 1950s and retired as battalion chief, and other "pioneers" for fighting discrimination and "[making] it easier for the rest of us."
Other honorees echoed similar themes at the event.
"I'm thankful for the trailblazers who came before us and who come after us," Fire Director Glenn Blackwell told guests. "I hope we can serve as some sort of inspiration so our living is not in vain."
Blackwell and Zachary Stith are the county Fire Department's first black fire directors. Blackwell, a 26-year veteran, directs recruitment, while Stith, a 25-year employee, heads the fire marshal's office.
The final recipient of the "African-American firsts" honor was Col. Johnny Whitehead, the county Police Department's first black colonel.
Whitehead, who is now interim director of public safety and police chief at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, climbed the ranks of the Baltimore County Police Department to become colonel in 1995. He also served as director of operations for the state Motor Vehicle Administration.
When Parrish was assigned to her first precinct in the early 1980s, she was the only black female officer there. She acknowledged that she faced resistance: "Some men felt women should not be on the job. Some felt blacks should not be on the job."
But Parrish overcame such challenges, serving in many areas of the county. She was promoted to sergeant in 1999. Today she works at the records management division at headquarters.
"In my heart, I knew I could make a difference anywhere they sent me in the Police Department," she said.