Debbie Montgomery’s immediate warmth makes it almost difficult to imagine the toughness that characterized her in the mid-1970s as she became St. Paul’s first female police officer. It’s even more difficult to imagine why – in the face of so many challenges and dangers – she continually pinned on a badge and headed off to patrol Rice Street after midnight.
Luckily, she’s more than willing to talk about her 28 years on the force, her early involvement in civil rights and her home base – the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul. As she does, Montgomery alternates between leaning backward and forward in a recliner. She’s in the living room of her home on Central Avenue in St. Paul, just a half block from where she grew up in the displaced historic Rondo neighborhood, a predominantly black community physically broken apart by Interstate 94 cutting through it in the 1950s.
Montgomery ’80 M.A. described the situation after the freeway was built and before open housing laws were passed in the 1960s: “We, people of color, couldn’t go north of University Avenue, south of Dayton, west of Lexington, all the way down to the Capitol. The banks redlined us and wouldn’t give us loans. We were locked in here. We had a village and we took care of each other.”
That care is precisely what helped Montgomery grow into one of the community’s lifelong leaders. Tributes to that leadership surround Montgomery. Less than half a mile from her home is a street sign to honor her: Debbie Montgomery Avenue.
Awards are scattered throughout her living room, and the recognition was earned on many levels: In addition to being St. Paul’s first female officer, she went on to become a pioneering educator throughout the world for women in law enforcement. She was St. Paul’s first female African-American city council member. She was one of the first African-American graduates of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and she was the first of two to graduate from St. Thomas with a master’s in public safety and law enforcement leadership in 1980. She was also the youngest member (at 17 years old) ever elected to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s board of directors in 1963.
“She’s just a great person. There was a lot of pressure being the first female African-American police officer,” said Kenny McIntosh, who grew up with Montgomery and served alongside her on the force. “Things were different back then; there wasn’t a lot of help. We watched out for each other, other people we grew up with.”
Montgomery’s dedication to her communities – the police community, Rondo community and education community – truly makes her who she is.
“Her commitment and understanding of community on her block, in her neighborhood, the state, nationally, is who Debbie Montgomery really is. [She is] able to reach out and help those people who need help, and be a voice for those people who need a voice,” said Bill Carter, Montgomery’s classmate in the St. Thomas law enforcement master’s program in 1980 and current manager of special projects and events on campus. “Her outspokenness and commitment are second to none. Her commitment to the advancement of people who don’t have it as good as others do – that’s her.”
Montgomery’s grandparents raised her and the tight-knit neighborhood around her shaped her life. Local churches acted as the conduits and rallying points for civil rights issues facing the black community, both locally and nationally. Within her own neighborhood, Montgomery had a rare perspective: Through sixth grade she attended J.J. Hill School, which was almost exclusively white, and in seventh grade she started attending Marshall and then Central High School.
“When we went from Marshall to Central, the boundary only came three blocks north into the neighborhood. There were only 32 of us [African-Americans]. I had the people I knew from seven years going to school with white kids. I was always outgoing and enjoyed everything, so I drew on both those groups [of white and black friends],” Montgomery said. “I just have been engaged. I don’t have any barriers. … I’m glad to get new information and adjust my thinking; I’m not stuck in a rut of having to be right.”
That openness and deep commitment to the issues facing her community helped propel her to the NAACP board. Not long after she was elected, Bloody Sunday occurred on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. (In 2015 she led a St. Paul delegation to Selma for the 50th anniversary march, which included St. Thomas community members.) In 1965, Montgomery rode down in a bus with fellow University of Minnesota students to take part in the March 21 march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders. The marchers averaged about 10 miles a day. Montgomery remembers roadside shanties selling food to sustain them.
Looking back, she said it was a dangerous adventure in which she and fellow NAACP youth members would sneak off when the marchers stopped for the night; they would visit the homes of Mississippi NAACP family members.
“Here we are going through the woods; we could have gotten killed. There’s KKK all over that area, yelling at us and threatening us. No one even thought about that,” she said. “We sat around the tables, ate, listened to what’s been going on in their area. That was powerful, to sit and hear from those people. … It was very eye-opening and inspirational.”
Her board membership consistently brought her in contact with people who already were or would go on to become giants of the civil rights era.
“Here I am not only young, but I’m a northern black person. Most of the college students [on the NAACP board] went to historically black colleges, were from the South or New York. So here’s a Midwestern girl coming in the youth division raising 9 million issues, listening to what’s happening and asking what people are doing, what we can do to help,” Montgomery said.
“When I got elected, Aaron Henry Jr. [son of Aaron Henry, leader of the Mississippi NAACP] and Andree McKissick [daughter of Floyd McKissick, the leader of the North Carolina NAACP] … were the friends I had.
“Having been on the national board and listening to the discussions on what we’re going to do, you’ve got Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, Margaret Bush Wilson. At 17 I didn’t realize how big these people would be or are. It was all about, ‘These are the issues that we have to deal with; how are we going to carry that message back and engage our communities?’”
Montgomery did just that, remaining politically and civically active when she returned to the Twin Cities and graduated with a political science degree. She also earned her master’s at the U of M in urban planning and urban law, which she applied in her job as a city planner with Model Cities, an organization started in 1967 to help low-income
St. Paul residents gain access to health care. Montgomery was continuing to do more than her part to help her community, but an odd sequence of events soon changed just how she would do it.
After the NAACP led suit in 1971 against the St. Paul police department, a 1974 settlement proclaimed the need to hire more black officers. At the time, Montgomery was working for Mayor Lawrence Cohen and, basically as a favor to him because they needed stronger female candidates, Montgomery went through the initial testing process. Out of hundreds of women, she was the only one to pass every test, which included the rigorous West Point physical agility test.
Despite being the only female and one of the few African- Americans to qualify for the 1975 academy, Montgomery declined to enroll because becoming an officer meant a sizable pay cut. But when one of the black candidates dropped out just days before the academy was to start, Cohen called Montgomery again and asked her to sit in temporarily because the academy couldn’t start without enough African-American candidates.
“I was only supposed to be there for two weeks. The mayor called again and said I needed to stay a couple more weeks. At the end of the month, I’m at the top of my academy,” Montgomery said. “I don’t want the job, but at this point I’m thinking ‘If I quit they’ll say a woman couldn’t do it.’ So it’s not about me at this point, it was the bigger purpose to get through. I stayed for the whole 36 weeks.”
Even then, Montgomery saw some of the issues that would arise because of her gender: getting stuck in a man’s uniform and equipment (“I looked like Clarabell the Clown,” Montgomery said); no female locker room; and constant pressure to drop out.
“She had such mental toughness. Very few people, male or female, had that toughness to survive the police academy at the time,” McIntosh said, citing when Montgomery suffered a serious injury during a training run and still showed up the next day, because an absence meant failing the academy. “They really got on her because they didn’t think she could pass physically, which was her strong suit.”
Montgomery passed with flying colors, but she had a new problem on her hands: Cohen was out as mayor and her city planner position was no longer funded. At that point the choice was simple: Montgomery was now a St. Paul police officer.
“It wasn’t exactly at the top of my to-do list,” she said with a laugh.
Even after such a winding path into the job, Montgomery still had an uphill climb to prove herself as the force’s lone female officer.
“I was the only one-person car on midnights. I would get calls that should have gone to a two-person car, and no one else was coming to back me up. … They were trying to get me to quit. I’m not a quitter,” she said. “I would go in and try to break up these fights. The guys [officers] would wait until they thought I was getting my butt kicked until they came in. They found out from me and women later on that we’re strong communicators. … I’m talking to people, ‘Listen, can we figure out what the problem is? You had too much to drink; this guy’s doing something with your girlfriend? Let’s figure this out.’ Just trying to communicate with them. I am a great communicator, and I was able to talk to them. I won’t say I was their friend, but I was able to get some respect.”
McIntosh saw firsthand how well those communication skills served Montgomery as she patrolled the district the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang used as a home base.
“There was a big bar fight in her district. I zipped over there out of my district and when I got there, asked a couple other officers where she was. And here she comes walking with this big Hell’s Angel guy. She’s got her arm around him, he’s got his arm around her, she’s saying, ‘Come here, baby, let’s get you over here and get you some help.’ … She was just great at diffusing situations,” McIntosh said. “Debbie really can talk to anyone. It really served her well as a female police officer in the ’70s. Her ability to connect with people was one of her biggest assets.”
While rising through the ranks Montgomery began to take a bigger role in law enforcement education, which included attending St. Thomas. Montgomery has since traveled all over the world to lead trainings with the International Association of Women Police, along with teaching at Century College and Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
“I never would have gotten to do all this as a city planner,” she said, shaking her head. “To listen and learn from so many people all over the world? Wow.”
She also remains connected with St. Thomas.
Most recently she lectured on the importance of social entrepreneurship and servant leadership to the Black Empowerment Student Association.
Throughout all those travels and a distinguished career, Montgomery has remained dedicated and loyal to the community that first raised her, even as it has evolved over time. Readus Fletcher, fellow “Rondo kid” and former deputy director of the
St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, sees those connections for him and Montgomery leading all the way back to their childhood.
“Our family homes taken by I-94, absolutely had a defining impression on us kids of the ’50s and ’60s. We all came from strong families, and to see our fathers and mothers lose their homes, not be able to move to other places a block away from the construction … it propelled many of us, certainly Debbie, into this consciousness of equity and moving forward,” he said. “That’s where we came from. That was the homeland. Not just me and Debbie, many more remained and stayed to become firefighters, police officers, lawyers. It was a value that goes back to neighborhood and families. Values to move forward, you and family.”
Montgomery said helping her community improve always has been what drives her. It drove her to raise four children who contribute positively to their communities. It drove her to a city council seat in 2004, a role in which she proved crucial to bringing in investments, jobs and senior housing to her ward. It drives her to continue educating the next generation of police officers. And it drives her to continue answering the phone as all sorts of community members look to her for advice, guidance, to come speak to groups or at their school, or to find who she can connect them with to help solve whatever issue they’re facing.
“I just want to, before I die, make sure this community gets what they deserve,” Montgomery said. “God works in mysterious ways, and he has put me in places where I have gained knowledge and in places where I can share some of the things I’ve learned. I’m blessed.”
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