LPD Offcr. Edgar Picket | Courtesy Lakeland Police

On New Year’s Eve, 1964, at 2:30 in the afternoon, Edgar Pickett, Jr., one of Lakeland’s first Black police officers, responded to a domestic violence call at the J.M. Fields store.

With more than a decade on the force at that time, he entered a room where Leroy Mason, a Korean War veteran with a steel plate in his head, was crawling on the floor.

“He reached up and he tore my gun loose from my holster and there he shot me in the neck,” Pickett recalled in a 2014 interview with WUSF, noting that Mason shot two other officers that day, also. “It went up and hit my seventh vertebrae and the doctors say that it missed my spine by the length of a gnat’s eyebrow.”

Pickett survived the shooting, going on to become a detective and one of the most accomplished forensics experts in the state, attending trainings at the prestigious FBI Academy and teaching law enforcement to students at several community colleges in Central Florida. He even taught at Polk Community College, an institution he was not allowed to attend to become an officer in March 1954.

Pickett, who many in Lakeland referred to as “Daddy Pickett,” died April 6 surrounded by his family. He was 95 and many say will be remembered as a trailblazer, a hero, and a giant in Lakeland and in law enforcement.

“Retired Sergeant Edgar Pickett is an icon in our community, a giant among men throughout his life,” said LPD Chief Sam Taylor. “Our agency is better today because of the foundation laid by his work in law enforcement and the mentoring he provided to so many others. Even working in adverse times, he not only dedicated himself to serving as an officer in his community, but became a leader in forensics and fingerprinting. I think of him each time I pass our Forensics Lab, which was named after him, and I know his story will continue to be told here at the Lakeland Police Department. He will definitely be missed, but he will never be forgotten.”

Lakeland Public Librarian Luann Mims, who is in charge of the library’s historic documents and artifacts, interviewed Pickett in 2018 about how he was inspired to become a police officer during segregation, a time when there were no Black people on the police force. He said he was motivated to join after a racist officer yelled at him one day when he was riding his bike home from work as a 25-year-old man.

“At the corner of Pine and Florida, I saw a lot of white people and a policeman and I was happy because I saw that policeman,” Pickett recalled. “And he yelled at me and used some words that I didn’t like, but I could not have fear. And I came home and told my parents that I wanted to be a policeman to prove that you didn’t have to be that type of person to be a policeman.”

Pickett’s mother, Ethel, worked for Pat Flanagan at Flanagan’s Paint Pot on Main Street. Flanagan served at various times as a city commissioner and mayor and she told him that her son wanted to be a police officer. At the time, Pickett was working at the Montgomery Ward store downtown.

“My mother said you will never be one in Lakeland because they’re not going to have it,” Pickett recalled. Flanagan told his mother, “Have him to come to the City Commission meeting with Daddy. And my father went down there and that’s how we got started. And Mr. Flanagan said ‘Only thing you have to do is pass the test and you will be hired.’”

But his parents didn’t want him to join, knowing the difficulties he would face, both as an officer and as a Black man. But they opened the door for Samuel King and Samuel Williams to become officers two months before Pickett was sworn in alongside Thomas Hodge. He was 26 years old.

“So I never did tell them I took the test and passed and was hired before I let them know that I was going to be a police officer,” Pickett said.

Lakeland Police Department’s first black officers (Left to Right: Thomas E. Hodge, Edgar T. Pickett, Jr., Samuel L. King, and Samuel L. Williams), 1954. | Courtesy LPD

Growing Up Segregated

Edgar Picket, Sr., decided to move to Lakeland, where he had friends, after two events in 1922 in his hometown of Cochran, Georgia, a rural town about an hour southeast of Warner Robbins Air Force Base.

“He was like on a plantation and he told us that he saw his aunt tied to a post and a white lady was whipping her and a man was standing there with a shotgun,” Pickett said. “He asked him, ‘What did she do?’ The man say, ‘She talked back to my wife,’ and he thought it was about time for him to leave.”

Pickett said the second event sealed the family’s fate to head to Lakeland. His father had worked an overnight shift at a peanut factory and he was walking home. He had gotten about a mile when the sheriff stopped him and asked him why he was walking the streets during the day. Pickett’s father explained that he had just gotten off his overnight shift.  The sheriff called him a liar, told him to get into his Model T Ford and he drove Pickett, Sr., back to the factory.  When the foreman saw him, he asked Pickett, Sr., why he was back after working all night.  The sheriff heard that and told him not to get caught walking the streets again and let him go.

“He had to walk that mile back and that’s when he decided he will leave,” his son said.

His father got a job with the railway at the roundhouse in Lakeland for 15 cents an hour and Pickett, Jr., was born six years later, growing up in the family’s home on 12th Street, next to what is now the Rochelle School of the Arts. At the time, it was named Washington Park and housed the segregated Black elementary, middle and high school grades.

Pickett said he never had a new book during the entire 12 years he attended the school.  They were all used from the white schools.  In addition, their athletic uniforms and shoes were also hand-me-downs from Lakeland High School.

For fun, the kids in the neighborhood made their own toys, including wagons and a basketball hoop out of a basket with the bottom cut out and nailed to a tree. There was no park to play in, so they played in the streets because, back then, not many families in the neighborhood had the money to buy a car in the Great Depression years.

He said things could be hard for minorities back then, but there wasn’t violent crime in their community like there can be today.

“Very seldom that we will see a policeman in our community because we never had those type of… We didn’t have the fighting,” he said.

His father got better jobs at two furniture stores, eventually becoming a manager – which was unheard of for a Black man. He even opened a small neighborhood store and got a hand-me-down Chrysler.

One event from his childhood stuck out in his memory.  He spoke of the teachers he loved and admired – Miss Dunbar, who opened a small library, Miss Adderly, Miss Daniels, Professor Shoots, and Mr. Strickland. He also remembered Professor Rochelle, who was his principal and his family’s insurance salesman – and one terrifying night in front of Rochelle’s home in the 1930s.

The Ku Klux Klan gathered up many prominent Black residents in the middle of the night, including Pastor Gordon from Harmony Baptist Church on the corner of Florida Avenue and Memorial Boulevard, and Pickett’s third grade teacher Miss Carolina, and marched them to Rochelle’s home. They set a cross on fire in Rochelle’s yard.

“I’ll never forget when they burned a cross at his house,” Pickett said. “I was a little boy then and I just couldn’t understand and I said, ‘Well there was a policeman. Oh, why they didn’t stop them from getting there?’ It was embarrassing because it was my pastor — they got him out.”

Photos of the event were published in The Lakeland Ledger.

They bought their groceries from a store on what was then called North Street and is now called Memorial Boulevard.  Clothes were bought downtown at J.C. Penney when it was on Kentucky. During WWII, there were ration stamps and your good clothes were worn to church and your older clothes were worn to school.  You got new clothes only at Christmas.

He said the atmosphere for minorities downtown could be tense.

“You just stayed in your place because you knew exactly what you would expect,” Pickett said.

During segregation, Florida had some of the strictest Jim Crow laws in the country, according to a report by Florida Atlantic University. Some of the laws included keeping Blacks and whites separated in schools, dining establishments, movie theaters, railroad cars, and on beaches.  Blacks and whites were prohibited from marrying – “Performing such a ceremony punishable by a fine of $1,000, ‘of which one-half shall be paid to the informer.’”

“I worked downtown at Montgomery Wards across from Munn Park for eight years and they had different restrooms and we couldn’t go to the counters at the place and I always wanted me a milkshake but I couldn’t go to the drugstore that was on the corner because they didn’t allow it, so I had to get somebody else to go buy it and give me a milkshake,” Pickett recalled.

“But we didn’t have any restaurants and anything that we could go to eat and we had one place. It was by the railroad track that way — I think it’s Harry’s there now – and they had a window where the Blacks come up to buy, but my Daddy told me he never wanted to catch me at that window buying one of those hamburgers and so I never really get to taste one of them because he was that type of individual.”

Building a Marriage and Home

Pickett met his wife, Lena, in the Washington Park/Rochelle library, part of Miss Dunbar’s classroom.  He took Lena to his senior prom in 1946, learning how to do the two-step for the event. 

Pickett wanted to go to college, but the family couldn’t afford it. Instead, he began working at Montgomery Wards, eventually making $25 per week.  He and Lena married in January 1950, when she was making $13.50 a week.

They lived with his parents until they could save up enough money to build a home – back then, banks did not provide mortgages to Black people in order to buy a home. They put his whole paycheck into saving for a home.

They used her check to pay his father $5 per week, go to the movies on Saturday nights and give the rest to the church.

He got a $200 tax refund one year and used the money to buy a vacant lot from his sister at 604 Whitehurst Street. He drew a plan on a piece of paper and after work and on weekends, they would buy lumber and build their home with a hammer, handsaw, level and a square. He learned how to do electrical wiring from his father and installed power. He ordered furniture from Montgomery Ward and would uncrate it at work, then tie it to himself and pedal it home on his bike.

“It took us about a year, as soon as we got one room completed,” he said.

Black Police Officer

One day riding home, he encountered that racist policeman and the direction of his life changed. Once hired at LPD, Pickett could only patrol Black neighborhoods and arrest Black people.  Even if he saw a white person breaking the law, he could not place them into custody.

During the Civil Rights protests and uprising in the 1960s, Pickett was sent to Florida A&M University, where he took a two-week course on working with youthful offenders. When he came home, he worked in department’s juvenile division, eventually running the department.

Despite his hard work, he got resistance from his own neighborhood, with people calling him a pimp and the children of those he arrested bullying his children at school.

After being shot in 1964, he decided he wanted to become a detective – again blazing a trail for others to follow. As with so many Black icons, it wasn’t easy.  Pickett taught himself the aspects of forensics work, including fingerprinting, photography, evidence collection, and how to identify different bullets left at crime scenes. He read book after book on the subject.

“I read an article where if you wanted to be a detective to send off that clip and so I did it, to the Institute of Applied Sciences in Chicago, Illinois. And I took a correspondence course,” Pickett said. “So I came up number one in the class and they wanted to have me at the Institute of Applied Sciences but I had to go to Chicago. My wife didn’t want to move, so we stayed.”

He worked with Duane Perkins’ Photography, learning the then-complicated chemical process to develop film and create prints in a dark room, with only a red bulb to illuminate his movements. It was an hours-long process that could be ruined by someone simply opening the door and flooding the room with white light.

“I made my own crime lab at the house — I made my own photographer shop there and when my children and my family would go to bed I would print my pictures at night,” Pickett said, adding that he used the family’s bathtub to wash his prints.”

Edgar Pickett, Jr., became a renowned fingerprint expert in Florida, winning awards and teaching at several Central Florida colleges. | Lakeland Police

But it was the arches, loops and whorls of fingerprints, each one unique to individuals, that mesmerized him and he set out to become a fingerprint expert. He became a plainclothes detective, developing and implementing Lakeland PD’s first fingerprint filing system. The Fingerprinting Lab at the Lakeland Police Station is now named in his honor.   

Although not widely known, Pickett was also involved in stopping a threatened assassination attempt on President Jimmy Carter in October 1980 when he was running for re-election and barnstorming the south, with a stop scheduled for Lakeland just days before the election. A man named Franklin was apparently talking about it in town. Pickett and two other officers arrested him at a blood plasma donation center.

Pickett explained that Franklin, whose first name could not be found by LkldNow, had escaped from several jails throughout the country. He at first denied that’s who he was, but Pickett, now a fingerprint expert, took his prints and contacted the FBI.  In these days before computers or even fax machines, Pickett and an FBI agent discussed the unique features Franklin’s prints contained and Pickett realized they had their man.

President Carter’s Air Force One landed at Lakeland Linder Airport and he and his motorcade were ushered to the then-Lakeland Civic Center, where he made a speech to a large crowd.

“I got up and shook his hand and everything and was about four feet from him when he was making his speech – took his pictures and all,” Pickett said.

Pickett was one of a few dozen who could actually hear Carter.  According to Ledger reports, the public address system conked out and 8,000 people in and around the courtyard couldn’t hear a word from the incumbent president.

Retirement and Continued Community Service

After nearly 30 years of work, Pickett retired in 1983 and continued doing consulting work for different law enforcement agencies in the state. In 2019, he joined Lakeland Police detectives as the agency closed the 38-year-old cold case murder of Linda Slaten, with the arrest of Joseph Mills, her son’s baseball coach. It was a case he worked on as a detective.

He also joined Lt. Joe Parker in recent years as he held a construction summer camp for at-risk students. Pickett said the solution to the violence and despair permeating so many young people today rests with their parents.

“They have got to get stronger with their children, to be on both sides,” Pickett said.

There was one chore Pickett might not have accomplished after his retirement.  He wanted to find Leroy Mason, to tell him he had forgiven him for shooting him.

“I don’t hate anyone,” Pickett said in 2018. “I don’t hate Leroy Mason. And I’ve been trying to reach him and tell him I don’t hate him … I heard he was at Avon Park Correctional and I tried to locate him. They say they had let him out. And I’ve been trying to find him to let him know that I didn’t hate him. I just can’t hate. My dad always told us to never hate. And I just wish that I could find him and let him know.”

Edgar and Lena Pickett in this undated photo. | Courtesy Coney Funeral Home

Prickett spent the twilight years of his life spoiling Lena, making her cakes and bringing her breakfast in bed.  The couple was married for 72 years until her death last year.

Pickett is survived by his son, Edgar Pickett III, and his daughter Delores, along with several grandchildren.

Coney Funeral Home is hosting a visitation on Friday, April 14, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.  Pickett’s celebration of life is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 15. Both will be held at New Bethel A.M.E. Church, 2122 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. in Lakeland.

An earlier version of this story said Pickett had been shot while in a home. He was shot at the J.M. Fields store.

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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