Former Mansfield Police Chief Lawrence Harper, who passed away last year, will be among those honored by induction into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has announced.
The ceremony will take place on October 5 in the Ohio Statehouse Atrium. Harper is one of four inductees, the other being Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert H. Jones, the Marching Mothers and Children of the 1954 Hillsboro Fight for Integration, and Moses Fleetwood Walker.
The following biography of Chief Harper was included in the announcement:
Lawrence Harper was born in 1926 in Mansfield and would remain there for most of his long and trailblazing career. Nicknamed, “Bunker,” Harper left Mansfield Senior High School at age 18 to join the marines on D-Day, making him one of the first black men to enter the Marine Corps in World War II. Harper would finish high school in 1947, after serving in the in the 12th Ammunition Company of the 6th Marine Division for two years. As a Marine, Harper served in the South Pacific and in China, and took part in the invasion of Okinawa. He earned several medals in his relatively short time in military service, including the Combat Action Ribbon, a Presidential Unit Citation, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory Medal and a China Cruise Medal.
Shortly after returning to Mansfield and graduating from high school, Lawrence Harper joined the then 36-officer police department as Mansfield’s first black police officer. “I saw that there were no blacks on the (police) force, and I thought, ‘That job is waiting for me,'” Harper said, according to a 2001 Mansfield News Journal article.
As an officer in the early 1950s, Harper made the city’s first drug arrest, stopping a man who was carrying a bag of marijuana. He advanced through the police ranks over the next twenty years, promoted to Sergeant in 1966, to Lieutenant in 1967, to Captain in 1973 and to Major in 1978, serving as second in command to the chief. After 41 years in the Mansfield Police Department, Harper was appointed as the first black police chief in Mansfield at the age of 63 and would retire as the department’s longest-serving police officer and longest-serving police chief. After retiring from the Mansfield Police Department in 2002, Harper continued serving the community as bailiff in the Richland County Probate Court and Juvenile Court
Harper’s advancement was not without challenges and discrimination. Harper’s promotion to Major followed a lawsuit against the city, contesting the rating he was given on a promotion exam. The court finally found that the city bypassed its own evaluation system in deciding who to promote. As Major, Harper had to sue again, this time for pay discrimination. As second in command he was still receiving lower pay than Captains subordinate to him. Harper won his initial claim and just three weeks before his swearing-in as Chief, Mansfield City Council approved a settlement in late 1980 allowing a $19,000 payment and higher annual salary.
In spite of his need to fight civil rights battles in court, Harper had no ill will with other members of the police force. He was known as a great communicator and was highly respected. In September 1999, Harper was inducted into the National Criminal Justice Honor Society at Ashland University, where he earned a degree in criminal justice with a sociology. He also earned an associate’s degree in law enforcement from North Central Technical College in 1985. Ocie Hill Neighborhood Center’s gymnasium was renamed the L.E. Harper Gymnasium in his honor in August 1998.
Lawrence Harper died at age 90 in December 2016. City Councilman Butch Jefferson said of Harper, “To me, he was an icon. He broke down barriers and he did an excellent job once he got in. He carried himself well once he was in a position of authority, and he handled those who were below him well. He never carried himself like he was above anybody. He was a good man.”