Season Three, Episode 07 – But Not With Silver

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ABE BOLDEN: I was very familiar with the scriptures, and the scriptures said this. He that who is to reach the highest height must first reach the lowest depths. And that scripture was in my mind. I say, here I am from the White House to the lowest depths. I’ve seen the mansion and I’ve seen the tomb. I’m kinda ashamed of myself, of what happened.

But anyway, after the judge did like he did, I knew that they were going to find me guilty. So that night, while I was getting ready and thinking about going to court, I had decided to assassinate this judge. And I could shoot pretty good too. I was considered an expert. I could have put six bullets in his head before he hit the ground. When I went in the closet and I got the gun down and I kept my bullets and the gun in separate places because of the children.

So I took down the gun and I slid the drawer up, and then it started squeaking a little bit. And my dear wife rolled over and said, what you doing Abraham? And that reverberated through my brain. It was just like an echo. And that sort of brought me back to my sensibility. Yeah, I’m saying, what are you doing? Cause it’s more than you at stake.

This is a very selfish thing. You got a wife and you got three kids here. And you got other people that are going to come after you, you’re going to have grandchildren. What are you doing Abraham? So I decided against that. To let divine fate take it’s course. My name is Abraham Baldwin, and I’m here at my home in Chicago, Illinois.

I’ve been living here in the same house, same living room, nearly 60 years. I’ve been here since 1962. I like to see myself as a tool of faith. I have a premonition and a belief that my life was all laid out for me. I was born in East St. Louis, Illinois. My father made sure that we were not poor. He held two eight hour jobs. He worked at Swift Packing Company, and he also worked at B&O Railroad. My mother, she made dresses for the sisters.

She canned peaches. She did those type of things that you don’t see these days. Between 1935 and 1952 are the years that I spent in East St. Louis, Illinois. It was a very segregated city when I was raising up. 

AUDIO CLIP: Do you think a Negro family moving here will affect the community as a whole? Definitely.

ABE BOLDEN: Same signs that they had in Mississippi. Colored drinking fountain white drinking fountain. All black high school and all black elementary school. There were a lot of tension.

AUDIO CLIP: Exclusion of Negroes from white communities and their restrictions of all negro neighborhoods fix his negative ideas about them. Which are carried over. 

ABE BOLDEN: The fact that it was a segregation didn’t bother me that much. When a person is born into a situation, he accepts that situation as his normal. So that was my normal. Yes, I had a love for music. My brother was in Lincoln High School Band. He would let me go to band practice with him. And he played the tuba with the big bell on it. So one day I went with him and they were practicing a march.

There was a young trumpet player, very dark-skinned, young, trumpet player, kind of curly haired young man. And he was not playing the normal position that a trumpet player would play. When he would be ooling around, he would be looking down at the floor instead of looking forward. He was so into the music. He would jazz up the marches. And this guy was, was just out of it.

So on the way home that , afternoon, I asked my brother, I said, who is that guy, you know, sitting over there by the radiator that won’t stop playing the trumpet? My oldest brother told me, he said, he’s Miles. That’s Miles Davis. Said he, Dr. Davis’s son. I said, oh yeah, well, Miles Davis, why there was no big thing. He was just a little skinny kid having a reputation of using a lot of marijuana. Even back then. They say he smoked dope.

So I walked up to Miles Davis and I said I think I’ll play trumpet too. Miles never said a word. He turned his back on me and walked outta the door. I got a scholarship to Lincoln University. I majored in music, music composition. Graduated in 1,956 cum laude, third in a class. But I had always had this longing, because of my background growing up in the city of East St. Louis, where I would see a lot of violence. One-on-one, black-owned black violence, and that concerned me. 

AUDIO CLIP: As the lines are drawn, those on either side become more adamant. Tension developes and feeds on suspicion and mistrust.

ABE BOLDEN: I used to lie in bed and wonder what can I do about this?

AUDIO CLIP: I think violence will immediately go down if they’re allowed to move in here.

ABE BOLDEN: When I graduated from college, I had to make a choice. I had a teaching assignment down Halltown, Missouri, which is down in southern Missouri, way down there. My wife at that time, Barbara Bolden was looking in the newspaper and she says, here’s a job here. You’ve been talking about being a policeman. And she said, Pinkerton, National Detective Agency, they are hiring agents.

And I said, they’re not going to hire any negro agents. Pinkerton doesn’t have any negro agents. She cut the article out, the advertisements said, why don’t you go and apply anyway? Monday morning I went over to 705 Olive Street in St. Louis, Missouri, and I walked into the office and told the young lady who was at the switchboard that I was looking for a job.

She looked me right in the eye and said, we are not hiring people like you. I was about to go out of the door, and that was a Mr. Mertz, who was the district director of Pinkerton. So he came out there to the secretary and asked her, say, what’s the problem out here? Mr. Mertz and I had a real conversation. He brought me in and said, no, we don’t have any detectives of your color, of your race. He said, but I’m going to give you a try.

Went to the Pinkerton school and studied fingerprinting and different things like that. We were doing a lot of insurance investigation, fraud investigation. People who had civil cases pending against insurance companies. And we would take these long range cameras and set a couple of blocks down from their homes, so we would take pictures of them cutting grass, things like that.

A year later, my wife was reading the St. Louis Post Dispatch again, and she said, Abraham, the state police are hiring. Maybe you should apply for the state police. I said, well, I’m doing alright here. She said, well, I’m not, you need to make more money. So, I went to Springfield, Illinois. I became Illinois State Policeman. First African American, assigned a District Aid in Peoria, Illinois. So now I’m moving up.

And they made a big thing out of it. You know, they took pictures of him, me getting in another state police car and driving down the road with the big hat on. And they just made a big thing out. Cause there were only about six of us in the whole state police.

My dad didn’t like it at all. He said you were walking, talking, and that badge just tells him where to shoot. He thought that I should accepted the teaching position. I remember one particular guy, he was from Georgia. I stopped him for running a red light on a highway. I walked up to him and he looked out of the window and he says, who are you? Where are you on? I said, I’m a Illinois State policeman, sir.

The state of Illinois, I’d like to see your driver’s license. You just ran a red light back there. And he said, ain’t no nigger Illinois State policeman. Y’all don’t have no authority to stop a white man. I’m not gonna give my driver’s license to a nigger. So now I had a five inch .38 on my side. I removed the five inch .38 from my holster.

And cocked it back and says, you going to get out of that car, I’m going to blow your damn brains out. I confiscated his car and everything and took him to the county jail. We found out that Senator Kennedy was coming to Peoria. 

AUDIO CLIP: This is Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts.

ABE BOLDEN: I was on the airport detail. I stopped the traffic and everything as the motorcade came out of the airport. He was sitting on the back of a white Lincoln. And I looked and I waved, and I think he waved back I couldn’t tell.

AUDIO CLIP: Former president of the United States Senator John F. Kennedy. 

ABE BOLDEN: So I went down there and I listened to this young senator talking about making things better for America.

AUDIO CLIP: Our heritage of freedom. We must be strong militarily, educationally, scientifically, and morally strong. 

ABE BOLDEN: This is when his campaign was really picking up. While Kennedy was in Peoria, I happened to run into the special agent in charge from the Springfield office, Mr. Fred Backstrom of the Secret Service. And in the process of driving them around, I asked him, I said, Mr. Backstrom, I said, do they have any Negro Secret Service agents in the secret service?

He said, I don’t think so. He says, why don’t you apply? And we’ll see where it goes from there. And so that’s what I did. When I reported to the Secret Service Office, I was sworn in on October the 30th of 1961. They transferred me from Peoria to Chicago. While the Secret Service is responsible, basically for the protection of the president and the president’s family. They were to take a bullet for him, so to speak. 

AUDIO CLIP: A record number of Americans upwards of 67 million, go to the polls to elect the 35th President of the United States.

ABE BOLDEN: Now, in the meantime, President Kennedy. Beats Nixon in Cook County about some 8,000 votes.

AUDIO CLIP: At 43 years of age. He’s the youngest man ever voted in the White House and the first Catholic chief executive in the history of the nation.

ABE BOLDEN: As a Secret Service agent, we are having a meeting here in Chicago because the president is coming into town and he’s coming to McCormick Place. They were giving out the assignments. And I had seen a markup of the assignments where they had stationed me near the platform where President Kennedy was gonna be speaking.

But they made a change, they crossed it out. They put a Chicago policeman there, and they put me in his position downstairs in front of a washroom. I noticed it right away, cause I’m looking at one thing and they telling me another. I knew it wasn’t a mistake. What they were trying to do was hide me out. So here I am, April 28th, 1961, and I hear the motorcade pull up in front of McCormick Place. Everybody’s scuffling around, you know, the photographers are fighting.

Everybody trying to get the best shot of the president. And I’m down standing in front of this washroom and I’m trying to look up the steps to just see the president. Maybe I could see his shoes or ankles or something like that. So I’m standing down there and I hear the footsteps. I look up and who’s coming down the steps? Mayor Daley, Congressman Dawson, all of the big wheel Democrats in Chicago. And who’s in front?

President John F. Kennedy. The first thing that he wanted to do when the motorcade stopped was use the washroom. And there I stood. You can’t beat fate, man, that was fate. The first thing I noticed was his shoes. His shoes were like glass. They looked like patent leather. And then I noticed that smile, like he– his whole face smile. And he stopped right in front of me and he looked at me and he says, are you a Secret Service agent or you wanna Mayor Daley’s Finest?

I say, I’m a Secret Service agent, Mr. President. The president looked at me as if he was studying me, my reaction. He enjoyed seeing me in that position. So he looked at me, he said, Mr. Bolden, after he was told my name, has there ever been a Negro Secret Service agent on the White House detailing Washington DC. And not to my knowledge, Mr. President. He says, would you like to be the first? Yes sir, Mr. President. He said, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you in Washington, DC.

I came in here and I told my wife, I met the president of the United States. I said, he invited me to become the first African American of Negro to be on the Secret Service detail in Washington, DC. She said, I know you lying now. I said, no, I talked with him. And sure enough, a month and a half later I got a letter from the chief of the Secret Service in Washington, DC to report to the White House on June the sixth of 1961.

Well, the first day I was introduced to some of the other agents who were on the ship. The first thing I noticed was the seal, that presidential seal that was engraved on the floor. I don’t even know if that’s still there. It was much bigger than I had imagined as you walked through those doors. But I was mowing enrgrossed on the fact that I knew that I had to be the best in order to be in this situation. The president saw something in me. I had some very good interactions with President Kennedy.

I happened to be standing in front of the Oval Office on the post one day, and the cabinet meeting was breaking up and they left the door ajar. And as I reached in to close the door the President, he looked up and saw me and he said, Mr. Bolden, I see you made it here. He came over, he shook my hand. He said, I want to introduce you to some of the other people you’ll be working with.

And when we got to Pierre Salinger, Pierre was the the spokesman and President Kennedy say, I want you to meet Abraham Bolden. Say he’s the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service. The President of the United States, comparing me with one of my other icons in the same sentence. I was shocked, from a little boy in East St. Louis, Illinois to a historical figure for the United States.

But in the meantime, the sixties was a heck of a time to be living in. Things were kind of balling up, just racial things. With the Emmett Till case down in Mississippi, the bus rides, girls were being blown up in church. We had lynchings. When I went to Washington DC I expected that I would run into some segregation. Some people who didn’t like my presence there.

But never did I think that the most hateful words that I would hear would be from secret service agents themselves, that surrounded the president of the United States.

I was surprised at the actions of some of the agents for the first few days that I was there. They would hop in the car together and they would go, and once they came back they would be smelling like alcohol and these people are supposed to be on duty. And there was one person in particular, who didn’t like me and made no bones about it.

His name was Harvey Henderson and he was a shift leader. Bad news, man, he was real bad news. Now, when we left Washington, DC on about July the 2nd we were going to Hyannis Port. And the shift that it is going to take over the protection of the President. They ride on a press plane so that they can already be in place once that Air Force One lands.

As soon as the plane took off, the stewardess comes walking down the aisle and she’s handing out these bottles of whiskey. By the time we got to Hyannis Port, some of ’em were inebriated. They were slurring their speech and we are going to protect the president. We are the next shift.

We are the forward shift. And some of them couldn’t, they couldn’t swat a fly, so how could they protect the president of the United States? I didn’t raise any hell about that. But then at night, as we were turning in for the night, a couple agents jumped in the government car went out in town.

Then they come back and I hear giggling and things going on in the rooms around me. And I thought I was dreaming. So I woke up and everything, and I hear woman’s voice and they just partying in there. I look out the little window, out the porch, and I see these girls getting in the government car. The agents, they just had a ball.

We happened to be going on the yacht one day to yacht Marlin. Harvey Henderson, who was acting as my supervisor, had been assigning me to the follow-up boat. And man, that’s a heck of an assignment. Being on this Coast Guard driven boat, traveling at least 40 miles an hour. And so I had never been on a boat moving that fast. So I’m hanging on.

Now you got on a suit. The water’s rushing and splashing every which way. President saw me on that boat, I guess about three times. He called Harvey Henderson over to the cabin door and they had a conversation. Harvey Henderson came back and told me, he says, Bolden, he says, come up. He said, you on the yacht today.

So I get on the yacht to Marlin and they got these fishing chairs back there, these big fishing chairs, where you sit and you throw your pole off in the water and all this kind of stuff. And Jacqueline Kennedy dives overboard and she’s taking a swim and everything, and they just enjoying themselves. All of a sudden the cabin door opens and this sailor appears.

And he’s dressed in white, he’s got this tray in his hand and he’s walking over there towards me, and he sets the tray on top of him, and said, the president wants you to have lunch. Yeah, the president feed me, clam chowder soup. I had– and them little bitty little crackers that they make in a real silver bowl. I just relaxed. So when we got back to the little house where we were living, it was about five 30 or six o’clock in the evening.

We were all listening to the news and I was standing by the door. Harvey looked at me again. He sat the beer bottle down on the floor, scooted forward on the couch. And said Baldwin, I said, yeah, Harvey. He said, I want to tell you something and don’t you ever forget it. He said, you a n**ger. You were born a n**ger.

You going to die a n**ger, you’ll never be in anything else but a n**ger. So act like one. It finally came out. He just couldn’t hold it. But that didn’t bother me so much as when I walked out on the porch and I heard him telling some of the other agents, they were having a discussion in there. President Kennedy is a nigger lover. If somebody take a shot at him, I wouldn’t take a bullet for that SOB. Now we getting into some serious business.

I came back and reported the conversation that I had heard in the conduct of the Secret Service agent. I reported that to my supervisors here in Chicago. I reported it to the Chief of the United States Secret Service. I went around the chain of command. I did everything possible because what I had heard was treason so far as I was concerned.

We had a constitutional obligation and that was being overlooked. Beginning in the first party of 1963, we had knowledge of serious organized threats against the President of the United States. Organizations like the DRE that Cuban organization. The White Citizens Council, we had all of this information yet, the lax attitude was if somebody tried to assassinate the president, let it happen. I knew that with the climate with Harvey Henderson there, that it was going to end up until kill or be killed situation.

To where your manhood is at stake and you gotta protect your manhood. So I left the White House because one of us had to die on that detail. It had just come to that. You have to understand that from a black man’s point of view, people were being lynched and killed and trampled by dogs. Women were being killed. We had white women, black women, white men.

These people were being killed simply because they were voicing opinions that I should have rights. On November the 22nd, after I had made all of these complaints, and I was at 37th and Indiana, here in Chicago, and I’m standing there in, in this tavern, they got a little black and white TV over in the corner. I’m taking handwriting from the owner because I’m trying to find out whether or not he signed some bogus checks that had come through his tower. And I heard over the tv. 

AUDIO CLIP: This is a bulletin from CBS News in Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. 

ABE BOLDEN: And wounded seriously was what they first reported.

AUDIO CLIP: Wounded by this shooting.

ABE BOLDEN: Well, right away I curtailed everything that I was doing began to zip up my briefcase, so I drove to the Secret Service Office. And as I got off the elevator, people were crying. They just said that the president is dead.

AUDIO CLIP: From Dallas, Texas. The flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 PM Central Standard Time. Mrs. Kennedy as soon as the president slumped forward, she grabbed him. She cradled him in her arms and she said, oh, no, and tried to hold up his head. A photographer said he saw blood on the President’s head. Keep tuned to your NBC station for the later news.

ABE BOLDEN: And when I walked into the Secret Service office, one agent Joe Newnan was walking back and forth saying, I told those Playboys that they were going to get the President killed. I’ve been telling them that for years. All of these things came together.

And I started thinking the President Kennedy looked me in the eye at McCormick Place, and I could never get that outta my mind that he saw something in me that if anything happened to him, I would tell the truth about it. And so I start talking and confined to some of the agents. I say, somebody need to go to the Warren Commissioner and let ’em know.

AUDIO CLIP: Was there a conspiracy? Were right wingers involved? Was it a Russian plot, a Cuban plot? The new president, Lyndon Johnson, ordered these questions answered. 

ABE BOLDEN: I decide that I’m going to be the one, and that if I could possibly appear before the Warren Commission without tipping off the Secret Service or anybody else, then I could just slide in there. But it didn’t work out like that. When I went to Washington DC on May the 17th, they were on to me because they had an agent who was actually following me and watching everything that I did.

And when I made a telephone call to the switchboard in Washington, DC trying to get the telephone number of Jay Lee Rankin, he was one of the advisors to the Warren Commission, that’s when they decided I had to go. The next day, they put me on a plane, brought me back to Chicago, to the United States Attorney General’s office downtown.

And they keep me. 24 hours not telling me why I’m just sitting there. Don’t gimme a drink of water, won’t let me get a sandwich, won’t let me do anything. About midnight they came and said that they were going to arrest me for soliciting a bribe. I’m just going to show you how this thing works out. They solicited this guy Frank Jones. I arrested Frank Jones twice for counterfeiting money.

And to make a long story short, Jones said that I came to send him to another guy named Joseph Spaginoli. And that I would give Spaginoli some, some details on this case for the sum of $50,000. Now I’m going to send Frank Jones a man that I busted two times, and I’m going to use him to go to another counterfeiter. It was a ridiculous.

All they had to do was get together and write out the testimony that these guys were going to testify to and tell them, this is what you say, and we going to back you up. That’s all. It’s cut and dry. You’d be surprised how many innocent people that the government sends down. So during the trial, especially the first trial, the jury’s out deliberating. And the judge calls the jury in these 12 people who are deliberating, and he tells the deliberating jury, in my opinion, the defendant is guilty of counts one, two, and three and the indictment.

Now, he said, you can disagree with me, but I want you to go back in and deliberate. And take into consideration what I just told you. So he became a member of the jury. They still didn’t find me guilty. There was one person on that he didn’t convince. The second trial that we got the same judge, and this judge just twisted my attorney up like a pretzel.

He wouldn’t let us have any type of defense. He told my attorney one time to sit down and shut up and stop arguing with the governement. In the second trial when the jury was deliberating, the judge came, it was five 30 on August 11th, 1964, 5:30 PM. He says, it’s getting late and I’m tired, it’s been a long day and I’m going to want everybody out of the court building.

He took me and my attorney and the spectators that were in the courtroom put a big chain on the door of the courthouse building and locked it judges in there with the jury, secret service agents everybody in there is a government official.

I’ve been able to get all of the records of both trials, everything except that last jury, what did he say to the last jury? The deliberation of the last jury is missing. And I had to be frank with myself. I was not being tried as if I was in the democracy. Constitution, didn’t mean nothing when it came to me. They found me guilty. Basically of soliciting a bribe.

Terry Hut, federal prison, they sentenced me six years. Oh, it was one of the worst days in my life. They put me in cell 49, and I never will forget that number because my state police car was number 849. Depressing. Long time ago, people would say, oh, there’s not a convict in the institution that says that he’s guilty.

But yet, and still since that time period between 1960 and the present time, we are seeing more and more white and black inmates being released who have served as much as 37, 38 years in prison. Now being found that they did not commit the crime. But see, it was all together a different perspective then. In the sixties and in the seventies and eighties, if the government arrested you, you were guilty. You did something.

One of my best friends, (name), looked after me. He was an electrician, (name) was in there for, but he got drunk. And assaulted a federal employee. He was Native American. He used to always be sitting in the center of his bed. That’s what he would be doing. He would be making certain chants. That was my friend Gus, and he was a ex-boxer and he owed the government in back income tax, 2 million dollars.

I moved in the bed next to him and he became my friend. He wouldn’t let nobody bother me. I wrote letters to help other inmates. I wrote letters to their wives and family of many the uneducated inmates. I became their voice, their writing, their expression. I must have sent a half a dozen or more inmates home just by writing to the judge. As a matter of fact, I wrote so many of ’em, the captain and deputy warden called me in.

He says, you sending so many people home. He said, don’t you realize that this is a business? He says, every time you send somebody home, we lose money. He said, you should know that you were agent with the government. You know how this works. I really don’t think that a pardon is appropriate. A pardon operates on the basis that you are guilty of something and you want somebody to forgive you for something that you did.

But I think that they owe me the other way around. I think that they should expunge my record for what I suffered for these 60 something years of being convicted without having not committed a crime.

I got out on September the 25th of 1969. It was sad in a way, and it was good in a way. I was glad that I was going home. Yeah, but I had seen so much suffering. I got on that bus coming back to Chicago, and I remember we stopped at Birmingham, Alabama.

This huge, fat lady, was getting on the bus, and I looked down there and something told me that this big lady was going to sit next to me. Sure enough, when she got on that bus, she looked over there and she squeezed in next to me. And I rode all the way to Chicago, couldn’t half breathe. She was all over me, just leaning on me and everything, and I was about to go crazy. When that bus pulled up downtown Chicago and I saw those headlights from that bus, it flashed across the waiting place.

And I saw this beautiful girl was standing there. I knew who it was, it was my wife. And the greatest thing is when I walked in that back door, the little children started doing flips, said Daddy’s home. Daddy’s home. A couple of Secret service agents have contacted me, but not from the ones during my period. Most of these in the Secret Service now.

There’s a suit still pending in federal district court. Black agents sued the secret service on the basis of racial prejudice. A couple of them called me as a matter of fact, as to some of the pitfalls that a agent can fall into and how it was back in the sixties. That’s good information, even though it’s bad information for them. People say, well, you lost so many years of your life. No, this was my life.

This was meant to be. It made me a better person because I found out what the problem was, who I am, and how I fit into the cosmos. And this was what I was looking for. See, I was a good man. But I was rusty. There was a gold deposit beneath this flesh. In the scriptures, as it said, is that I have refined you, but not with silver. I have chosen you out of the furnace of affliction. See, you got to go through the furnace of affliction.