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Tampa police honor first black officer to die in the line of duty, 80 years ago

Joe Nance, 57, an 18-year veteran, died from injuries he received in a car accident near Lakeland.
Officer Trevarris Saulsberry stands at attention Tuesday at Tampa Police Headquarters during a memorial ceremony for Detective Joe Nance, who died 80 years ago in the line of duty. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Officer Trevarris Saulsberry stands at attention Tuesday at Tampa Police Headquarters during a memorial ceremony for Detective Joe Nance, who died 80 years ago in the line of duty. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Oct. 1, 2019
Updated Oct. 1, 2019

TAMPA — The death of Detective Joe Nance sparked a debate over whether the city of Tampa owed his widow a settlement under Florida’s workers compensation law.

Eighty years later, on Tuesday, the city embraced Nance with a memorial service honoring him as the first African-American to die in the line of duty with the Tampa Police Department.

Nance, 57, died Oct. 1, 1939, from injuries he received a week earlier in a car accident near Lakeland.

Initial newspaper reports said Nance was checking on clues in the murder of an African-American victim when “he was forced off the road by a truck.” A newspaper report eight months later, about the settlement with his widow, said only that Nance was “bringing a murder suspect from Lakeland.”

Maj. Calvin Johnson stands at attention Tuesday at Tampa Police Headquarters during a memorial ceremony for Detective Joe Nance, who died 80 years ago in the line of duty. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Either way, Nance’s death after 18 years with the department drew widespread reaction among his colleagues and the African-American community, according to the news reports. The police switchboard was swamped, and in a time of segregation, officers black and white bought flowers for his funeral.

In June 1940, the city finance committee approved a $3,000 payment to Nance’s widow, but not before a debate about whether police officers — including the chief — should be allowed to travel outside Tampa on city business. Transporting prisoners is the sheriff’s job, some argued.

But the city attorney told the committee that under a state law Tampa opposed, the city had no choice but to pay, according to news reports.

Retired officer Rufus Lewis remembers hearing about about Detective Joe Nance when he first joined the Tampa Police Department. Nance died in the line of duty. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Judging from the memorial Tuesday at the Police Department downtown, Nance’s service and sacrifice continue to inspire the city’s police officers.

Rufus Lewis, who retired in 1983 as a police sergeant, said he heard a lot about Nance from senior black officers when he joined the department in 1967.

“He went through a lot of things that I went through," Lewis said. "But we made it. We stuck through it, and we sacrificed. We did a lot of things to make it possible for the next generation.”

Added Capt. Ruth Cate, “It’s so important to us that we had the rookies here today, that the rookie officers know the history of the Tampa Police Department.”

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