First Black Secret Service Agent Dies At 82

Charles L. Gittens' tenure opened the door for hundreds of minority Secret Service agents who served after him. NPR's Sam Sanders reports.

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JACKIE LYDEN, host: The first African-American agent in the U.S. Secret Service has died. Charles L. Gittens was 82. His tenure opened the door for hundreds of Secret Service agents who served after him. NPR's Sam Sanders reports.

SAM SANDERS: Gittens was born August 31st, 1928, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, a contractor, emigrated from Barbados. Charles Gittens was one of seven children. He left high school early, joined the Army and served in Japan during the Korean War. During the 1950s, Gittens taught high school in North Carolina. While teaching, his friends urged him to apply for a job in federal law enforcement.

In a 1974 Ebony Magazine article, Gittens said he passed the written portion of his civil service exam, but failed the oral; his grader said he spoke incoherently. The second time around, with a new grader, Gittens passed. And in 1956, just as the Civil Rights movement was getting its start, Gittens was recruited by the Secret Service.

GERALD BLAINE: Charlie had a fantastic sense of humor and was a joy to work with.

SANDERS: That's Gerald Blaine, who served briefly with Gittens in the Secret Service. He's the author of "The Kennedy Detail: JFK's Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence." Baine says Gittens endured many hardships as the first black agent in the Secret Service.

BLAINE: You know, at that time the Civil Rights bill had not been passed. And it was not an easy task working anywhere. Many times we'd go on trips and it would be very difficult. Many of the hotels did not allow blacks to stay. They had to take a lot of abuse at that time.

SANDERS: On one occasion, while guarding President Lyndon B. Johnson, a restaurant manager refused to serve Gittens because he was black. His fellow agents protested, and he was later served. Gittens took it all in stride, according to Howard "Ike" Hendershot, who once worked as an agent under Gittens.

HOWARD IKE HENDERSHOT: He was my first boss in the Secret Service. He acted like race was never an issue, in any shape or form.

SANDERS: During his time in the Service, Gittens, stood mere steps away from President Kennedy as Marilyn Monroe sang him a sultry rendition of "Happy Birthday" in Madison Square Garden. He worked with Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Johnson as well. And in that 1974 Ebony article, he recalled the story of how he rescued First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis from an oversized bat in her room at Hyannisport. Gittens went on to be a supervisor in the Secret Service, and according to Gerald Baine, helped recruit more Black agents to the organization.

BLAINE: He really set up the Secret Service for hiring minorities after that, because he was so successful in working that he made it a lot easier for those people that followed him.

SANDERS: Gittens retired from the Secret Service in 1979, as Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Inspection. He then went to work in the Department of Justice, helping hunt down war criminals living in the U.S. Charles Gittens died of a heart attack July 27th this year, in Mitchellville, Maryland. Hendershot says Gittens' legacy will be a lasting one.

HENDERSHOT: He just wasn't an agent. He rose to the top of his profession.

SANDERS: His efforts paid off. The Secret Service now has more than 250 black agents. Sam Sanders, NPR News.

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