From rookie to chief: How the New River Valley’s first Black officer broke down barriers

Brown climbed the ranks and served as Blacksburg’s police chief

BLACKSBURG, VA. – Bill Brown retired from his role as Blacksburg’s police chief 15 years ago, but many in town still see him as their chief.

As the first Black police officer in the New River Valley he climbed the ranks all the way to the top, breaking the racial glass ceiling in law enforcement.

Brown’s life is quiet these days and that’s the way he likes it. But his wall of memories traces back to the late 1960s when the then Blacksburg police chief recruited him to the force.

“He said I’ve been looking for a colored boy to put on the police department and says that I’d like to hire you, I’d like for you to work for me,” Brown said.

It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1970, when he became the first Black police officer in the New River Valley. He was policing a white community as a Black man in the Civil Rights Era, aiming to be twice as good as his peers. But things weren’t easy.

“The chief at the time wanted all the officers to have their telephone numbers in the telephone book listed, and sometimes you’d get a call with people threatening you or something, or using some kind of racial slur,” Brown said.

But he was not deterred. Brown broke barrier after barrier climbing the ranks in the two decades that followed. He was promoted to chief in the mid-1990s, besting more than 125 other applicants.

“To be able to accomplish the things that I accomplished, I give it all to the good Lord,” Brown said.

Education was always a top priority. Brown graduated the FBI Academy and always encouraged others to learn more.

His desk name plaque read “My attitude is positive,” and that’s what turned him into a beacon in his community. One that was devastated when he announced retirement in the mid-2000s.

“There were people that came in and cried and said you can’t go, you can’t do this and I said I’ll tell you what people come in on their days off, I said I’ll tell you what I’m going to withdraw my letter until June 30th and you better wean yourself from me because June 30th I’m gone,” Brown said.

They named the police station after him and Brown went on to serve on the county board of supervisors, helping get new schools built.

He hardly knows a stranger in town and said as we continue to aim for inclusivity, his golden rule applies.

“I always treated people with fairness. I didn’t care what color you were, or whether you were foreign or whatever, they always got treated fairly,” Brown said.

Brown’s sons both served in law enforcement, continuing their father’s legacy. Brown also enjoys a part-time job officiating weddings.

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