By Bob Jackson
Pioneer women are generally thought of as having traveled in covered wagons or buckboards, often wearing long dresses or skirts, helping carry the load of life on the frontier.
But the trailblazing women who were honored Saturday during the Sisterhood In Blue program downtown travel in police cruisers and firetrucks, wearing badges and turnout gear, breaking gender barriers by boldly going where only men had gone before.
“It truly was like the Wild West at the Youngstown Police Department in 1978,” said Susan Centorame, who was among the half-dozen women who spoke about their experiences. The “Trailblazing Women of the Youngstown Police and Fire Departments” was a program hosted by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society at its Tyler History Center.
One of the first women to patrol the city’s streets when she was hired as an officer in 1978, Centorame said she and other women often faced resistance from male colleagues who resented females joining their ranks. Although she stressed that there was never any physical contact, Centorame said there was no shortage of sexual harassment from male officers.
That kind of opposition caused her and other female safety-force members to bond together, rather than crumble and leave. That support was, and still is, critical, she said.
“There’s a special place in hell for women who do not support each other,” Centorame said. “Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like less than you are.”
However, Centorame said not all of her male co-workers treated her with disrespect. Most, she said, were supportive and helpful.
Saundra Bell, who served with YPD from 1981 until her retirement in 2010, said the best part of being a police officer was having the power to do good and make a difference in the community.
“No complaint was too small,” she said. “If it was important to someone in the community, then it was important to me.”
The worst part of the job, she said, was seeing so many city youths whose parents were “not doing their duty” in raising children with respect.
“Their kids didn’t have anybody but the police, if they trusted them, to be role models,” Bell said. She said the natural maternal instincts in women made them more effective cops than men because, “We had the compassion to treat people with respect, so therefore, we were treated with respect.”
Bell, who was the city’s first DARE officer assigned to work in city schools, said she remains proud of the positive relationships she built with youths over the years.
“When kids respect you, they respect you all the way,” she said.
Bell said that when she first joined YPD, she was assigned to a desk job because she could type 80 words per minute, but she had no intention of staying put.
“I didn’t join the Youngstown Police Department to be a glorified secretary,” she said, noting that she and other female officers went through the same training as male officers, so were every bit as qualified to patrol a beat.
Bell recalled the time she was shot at during an incident at Taco Bell on Fifth Avenue.
“I happened to duck at the right time, so I didn’t actually get shot,” she said. While the close call didn’t cause her to rethink her career choice, it did drive home the reality of the dangerous line of work she and other officers had undertaken.
Marcia Harris, who was among the first female firefighters with the city’s fire department, credited the late Sheryl Frazier-Everett with paving the way for her and other women. Frazier-Everett joined the department in 1981 and was the only female until others were hired eight years later.
“Imagine walking into a fire station where there had never been a female employee, where there were no facilities for women. A station full of men who didn’t want you there. That was what Sheryl did,” Harris said.
Harris, who rose to the rank of chief prevention and code enforcement officer before her retirement, said she was also challenged by male firefighters, but didn’t let it faze her.
“I had five older brothers,” she said. “I knew every sport, I knew how to tag-team wrestle, and I knew how to box with the best of them. I went to college on both academic and athletic scholarships, so I told [the men] to bring it on.”
Anita Davis, who is Youngstown’s 6th Ward councilwoman, said her entry into the police force was “a complete fluke.” She had learned to speak Russian and German, fully intending to land a federal job as a translator. However, during a spell of unemployment, she was required to regularly apply for jobs in order to maintain benefits. One of those jobs was at YPD.
“Being a police officer was nowhere in my mindset,” Davis said.
But she was hired and took the job, intending to use it as a stepping stone toward her real goal.
“Somewhere along the line, I realized that I could make a difference right here,” Davis said. “I ended up loving that job. I loved the good of that job. I’m so glad that the Youngstown Police Department allowed me that opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. There is no greater pleasure than being of service to my community.”
Others who were honored Saturday were Wanda Cordero, Sharman Simon and Delphine Baldwin-Casey, who served as mistress of ceremonies.