BOBBY ARDOIN Editor/Consulting Writer
They are labeled now as trailblazers, three Black Opelousas city police officers who decades ago endured episodes of racial indifference within the department, yet persevered despite those obstacles to now serve as role models for those who followed.
Police lieutenant Julius Guillory and sergeants Phillip Stelly and Bernard Lewis were remembered during an Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center program Saturday as officers who broke through mid-20th century racially institutionalized barriers and served with distinction until their retirements.
The celebratory event which coincided with the first of two February museum presentations recognizing area Black history, was highlighted by family members who provided life histories and anecdotes for each of the officers.
Opelousas Police Chief Graig LeBlanc also spoke about Lewis, Stelly and Guillory.
LeBlanc said he often recounts the significance of their contributions to his officers.
“These were the men who had to clear the path for us and now it is up to us to continue on. Lieutenant Guillory paved the way for me running as the chief of police and then Chief Caillier paved the way for every officer to become the chief of police,” LeBlanc told the audience.
LeBlanc said that he often reminds officers serving in Opelousas to remember how Stelly, Guillory and Lewis handled their adversities.
“What I try to do is encourage the younger officers to do their jobs like these three men did. As young Black men, they need to know where we come from and where we need to go,” said LeBlanc.
Elbert Guillory said his brother Julius Guillory who became an officer in 1954, provided what Guillory called “legendary contributions” for Black municipal officers locally and statewide.
“Julius Guillory was responsible for filing the first class action lawsuit contesting hiring practices of police officers while helping institute the concept of community policing.
Later during his career, Julius Guillory became the first Black officer to run for chief of police in Opelousas, Elbert Guillory noted.
Julius Guillory lost that election. However, years later, Larry Caillier, the brother-in-law of Julius Guillory, was elected Opelousas police chief.
Agnes Stelly recalled that her father was a family authority figure who nonetheless remained humble and dedicated while working nighttime work details at the police department.
Stelly initially used his personal vehicle as his police car and served other officers as a role model.
Although he was respected by the other officers, her father was on occasions slighted by some of the personnel within the department, said Agnes Stelly.
Irregardless Stelly, who also worked with the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department, remained “cool headed” and handled the injustices and disrespect that he experienced with dignity, Stelly added.
Philip Stelly, who became an officer in 1953, once heroically saved two young boys from a residence that was also consumed by smoke and flames.
“My father came home and saw the house on fire, but he still rushed in and carried out the two boys,” Stelly said.
Stelly said she will always remember her father was someone who “shared his burden with dignity. He was a good man and he was always there to lend a helping hand.”
Devin Manuel, the granddaughter of Bernard Lewis, said her grandfather was someone that always aspired to become successful.
Like Stelly, Lewis, who became an officer in 1953, was also normally assigned to handle the night shifts at the department.
One of the methods Lewis used to provide effective law enforcement was helping the young offenders, often providing them with an opportunity at avoiding incarceration, said Manuel.
“(Lewis) would often use a chance to bring these young men to their parents, which in those days was worse than jail,” she said.
Manuel said that Lewis apparently took his job seriously.
On one occasion Manuel remembered that Lewis noticed that his wife was driving through Opelousas, but his spouse apparently was at the time presumably committing a misdemeanor infraction.
“He pulled his wife over and asked to see her driver’s license, knowing that she didn’t have it,” Manuel added.