A Raleigh cop bridged segregation with music

Joseph Winters in a 1978 photo. (NC Archives)
Joseph Winters in a 1978 photo. (NC Archives)

“Get up offa that thing,” James Brown commanded through the DJ’s stereo speakers. And the crowd gathered in the lobby of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium — including Raleigh’s mayor and police chief — happily did just that. A dozen uniformed police officers chatted and laughed with community members. Luminaries from Raleigh’s indie rock scene bopped alongside new friends raised on pre-Motown blues and soul.

In a fractured America, the celebration at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium that capped Black History Month was pretty close to miraculous. And presiding over it all was the spirit of an improbable hero who, though deceased for well over a decade, is somehow exactly what we need right now — an upright and open-hearted uniter.

The gathering on Feb. 24 honored Joseph Winters, Raleigh’s second black police officer, who, from the early 1940s to the early ‘70s was also one of North Carolina’s premier concert promoters. Winters died at age 92 in 2005, but his cache of recently rediscovered concert posters, tickets, photos, ledgers and handwritten contracts has prompted an article in Our State magazine’s April edition, the digital displays on select screens at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium through March and a more permanent exhibit to be curated by the City of Raleigh Museum.

Winters’ remarkable run as a cop, music impresario and community leader stretched from segregation and Jim Crow in the ‘40s and ‘50s to civil rights and Black Power in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His packed shows at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium brought white and black audiences together like few events of the time — all while he was also a pioneering and decorated police officer. In fact, The News & Observer named Winters and his partner Tar Heels of the Week in 1966 for their courageous work in apprehending a bank robber.

During the segregation era, white and black music lovers had to buy tickets for Winters’ shows — including the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan — at different locations. Once they arrive at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, whites were directed to the balcony and blacks to the floor. But they nonetheless mingled, not infrequently disregarding the separation policy. As concert-goers of that era attest, it all made a difference in breaking down society’s walls.

“It was on his mind. He watched through these concerts the impact it had both on whites and blacks,” daughter Chacona Baugh Winters told WUNC-FM’s “The State of Things” when asked if her father was aware that he was helping to move the culture toward integration.

Winters’ story inspires because it is at once delightfully fresh and yet reassuringly evocative of our national identity. At the February ceremony, Mayor Nancy McFarlane noted Winters’ many roles: police officer, entrepreneur (he also ran a downtown grill for a time), family man, community leader and champion of the arts. In other words, he was polymath in the great American tradition of that entrepreneur, scientist, writer, revolutionary and statesman Benjamin Franklin.

Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown recalled Winters’ encouragement during chats they had at church, and connected his approach to today’s concepts of community policing. Winters was well known to be a devout member of St. Ambrose Episcopal, where he often held court.

And yet he was equally at home making it possible again and again for James Brown — one of pop music’s most combustible provocateurs — to set Memorial Auditorium aflame with his devil-may-care moves and grooves. Winters’ embrace of both the sacred and the earthly recalls one of America’s signal cultural moments, the Harlem Renaissance of the ‘20s. That era’s heady stew of music, poetry, pride and spiritual striving has informed every counter cultural movement since and become, in its way, as American as the Fourth of July.

Winters’ resounding success as an entrepreneur reminds us that as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his 1862 pro-Emancipation essay, “America is another word for opportunity.” Imagine our hero, tired after putting in eight hours on his cop beat, returning home to dote on his family and then slipping into his basement office to run his concert business. And doing this not just for a spell, but for three decades.

The fact that Winters accomplished all this at a time when the playing field was decidedly not level underscores the perseverance that propels America’s forward progress. Being a liberal democratic republic is no easy feat. It requires grit and long hours — by our institutions, yes, but especially by individuals who see their chance to make a difference and seize it.

Finally, Winters reminds us that we don’t need Hollywood or New York City or Washington D.C. to hand us our heroes — though we spend an inordinate amount of time following the fictions of Netflix and the talking points of political consultants. Every city, every town, every rural county is rich in people who were and are extraordinarily brave, creative, insightful, eccentric, loving. Just as Joe Winters once walked his cop beat in Raleigh, there are heroes among us now who future generations will look back on as larger-than-life inspirations. One of them may be, could be you.

Billy Warden is a writer, musician and marketing executive based in Raleigh and one of the producers of the Joseph Winters tributes and exhibits.