David Lauderdale

‘Respect from everyone in town’: Beaufort’s first full-time black cop Joe Linnen laid to rest

Joseph Linnen in Beaufort Police Department uniform and assistant chief badge.
Joseph Linnen in Beaufort Police Department uniform and assistant chief badge. Submitted

Joseph Linnen was a Beaufort police officer, but then again he wasn’t.

As an African-American wearing a badge in the 1950s, he was to patrol the black neighborhoods only. He could not arrest a white person.

He had to provide his own patrol car, a V-8 that could outrun the city’s six-cylinder Chevrolets. He was allotted five gallons of gasoline a week.

In the beginning, Linnen was, in effect, the small town’s night watchman, keeping his day job on the Coca-Cola truck.

The Silver Slipper juke joint on Greene Street, or Terry’s Tavern on Duke Street, kept him the busiest. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and locals would often get in fights with Marines at the Silver Slipper.

In 1965, after many years working part time on the force, Linnen became Beaufort’s first full-time black police officer, with full arrest powers and a city patrol car, said Robert “Big Bobby” Jenkins of Beaufort.

Jenkins began his public safety career, which stretches more than 50 years, when he joined the Beaufort Police Department shortly after Linnen went full time under Chief Roger Earl Poston.

A lifelong Beaufort resident said, “He was the black Barney Fife ... gun with no bullets.”

“Everybody knew Joe Linnen,” Jenkins said.

“He had acquired respect from everyone in town, black and white.”

Pruitt’s Grocery

Linnen died Saturday at age 90. The funeral will be at 1 p.m. Monday at Allen Funeral Home Chapel in Beaufort.

He became an assistant chief, and interim chief. He left the Beaufort department as a captain in 1977 to join the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and stayed a decade.

In recent years, before he became bed-ridden, Linnen would leave his home “behind the bricks” on Darby Drive where he lived with his wife, Rosa Lee, to tool around town in a white Lincoln Town Car. A stop at Pruitt’s Grocery on Greene Street was part of his daily routine, even when his old knees kept him from getting out of the car.

“Pruuuuuuittt,” he would call from the curb to James W. Pruitt, who ran Beaufort’s last true corner store until shortly before he died four years ago at age 83.

The frail storekeeper would shuffle out of the time machine that was his white wood frame store with green trim and hand Linnen his purchases and receive the daily paper in exchange.

If the business of penny candy and sliced puddin’ was slow enough, Mr. Pruitt and Linnen would have long talks in what is already a bygone era.

‘A different time’

Linnen was a proud police officer.

He kept a neat uniform and, despite his marching orders in those early days to stay away from certain people and places, insisted, “I was a police officer, so I thought I had to be a policeman for everyone, not just one group of people.”

That attitude paid off one night in 2001 when he noticed flames coming from Hendrick’s Furniture Store on North Street.

He went off his beat to check it out and found a house behind the store fully involved in the fire, the Beaufort Gazette wrote.

“I could see a man and his wife and kid inside,” he told the newspaper. “So I ran in to try to help them out.”

He was burned but got them out, and seconds later the building collapsed.

In his early career, officers had little formal training, and very little backup when things got rough at the Silver Slipper.

“You had to be very diplomatic, or the best prize fighter in the world,” Jenkins said.

Linnen had a sturdy build, and Jenkins said, “He really didn’t take much back talk.

“If he had a problem with you, he could really wear out a slapstick on your head.”

That’s what they called a strip of leather with a piece of lead in the middle of it, he said. That method of law and order was replaced in the early 1970s, he said, by the use of Mace chemical spray.

But his place in history was bridging the different worlds of whites and blacks in the same small town.

Linnen was the first African American to serve full-time in the Beaufort Police Department, but he was not Beaufort’s first black police officer. Jenkins recalls other part-time black officers, including James Donnell, Jesse Lawrence, Charlie Fulton and Henry Hayes.

“It was just a different time,” Jenkins said. “It was not only in law enforcement. Minorities were never given the full authority they really needed or should have had.”

Jenkins believes Linnen’s ability to work with everyone played a role in the first black S.C. Highway Patrol officer, Israel Brooks, being assigned to Beaufort County in 1967.

“Joe Linnen would have been considered a peacemaker,” he said.

Born a slave in 1839, Robert Smalls, whose feat of bravery in stealing a Confederate ship during the Civil War earned him nationwide acclaim, went on to have a “profound” influence on his hometown of Beaufort, and the state of South Carolina.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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