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Charles L. Gittens, at 82; nation's first black Secret Service agent

Mr. Gittens is shown in 1971 with his wife, Ruthe, as he was sworn in as special agent in charge in Washington, D.C. Mr. Gittens is shown in 1971 with his wife, Ruthe, as he was sworn in as special agent in charge in Washington, D.C.
By Arthur Hirsch
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2011

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Charles L. Gittens broke a color line in the US Secret Service in winter 1956, while the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott was going on and as major lunch-counter sit-ins were years off.

He was first assigned briefly to Charlotte, N.C., but if his experience as an agent there or elsewhere produced any dramatic “In The Heat of the Night’’ moments, it was not likely one would hear of it from Mr. Gittens, who did not dwell on the obstacles racists may have thrown in his path.

Born in Cambridge to immigrants from Barbados, Mr. Gittens tended to brush racism aside and move on, a tendency even those close to him sometimes found bewildering.

His daughter, Sharon Quick, said she did not always know what her father made of his experiences breaking into the Secret Service, where he worked on details protecting US presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gerald Ford and eventually was put in charge of all agency field offices.

“The racial angle is really hard for him to get at,’’ said Quick, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I never understood it as a child. I don’t know if my father shut his eyes to it.’’

Mr. Gittens, who also served as deputy director of the Office of Special Investigations in the US Department of Justice after retiring from the Secret Service, died of heart failure July 27 at the Collington retirement community in Mitchellville, Md. He was 82.

He was born in August 1928 and was raised in the Village, a community of immigrants along Western Avenue in Cambridge, where his neighbors had roots in the Caribbean, the Philippines, Italy, and Eastern Europe.

“All of them were immigrants; all of them were poor,’’ said Maurice Butler of Washington, who has been researching a biography of Mr. Gittens for a couple of years, ever since the former Secret Service agent came to speak to Butler’s class at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Butler, who spent hours interviewing Mr. Gittens at the retirement community in Maryland, said Mr. Gittens recalled good relations among the neighbors.

The youngest of a family of three brothers and four sisters, Mr. Gittens graduated from Morse Grammar School and attended Cambridge High and Latin before he dropped out in 1945 to join the war effort.

His brothers had served in the military, and Little Charlie, as he was known, was determined to join the ranks, his daughter said.

“He was anxious to be a man because they called him Little Charlie,’’ she said. “He wanted to be with the big guys.’’

Butler said he tried to join the US Army in 1945 before he was 17, but he was turned away. He enlisted the following year and was stationed with occupation forces in Yokohama, Japan, said Butler.

In the service, Mr. Gittens completed his high school education, then attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Riley, Kan. He rose to first lieutenant and was executive officer of a military police unit before he left the Army in 1952. He completed a bachelor of arts in three years at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) in 1955, then taught both English and Spanish at Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C.

Before long, though, he grew interested in law enforcement, specifically the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the precursor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which at the time was an agency of the US Treasury Department. A friend in the bureau encouraged him to apply, saying the agency was hoping to recruit black agents.

He applied, but soon was recruited by the Secret Service, which is part of the Treasury Department. Hired in 1956, he became the first black agent, assigned briefly to Charlotte, then moving to New York, which was then the agency’s largest office, his daughter said.

He served 23 years in the Secret Service, assigned to New York, as special agent in charge of the office in Puerto Rico, and then Washington, where he became special agent in charge in 1971.

By 1977, he was promoted to deputy assistant director of the Office of Inspection, where he was responsible for oversight of all field offices. He retired in 1979 and was hired by the US Department of Justice, where his work in the Office of Special Investigations included pursuit of former Nazi war criminals living in the United States. He retired from the Justice Department in 1999.

Butler said that in New York, Mr. Gittens worked on cases of counterfeiting and check fraud and often worked undercover.

“There were times he was actually arrested with other criminals,’’ said Butler. Mr. Gittens was also held hostage at gunpoint in a New York apartment for a few hours, but Butler said he was embarrassed that it had happened. He spent little time talking about the dangers of the job.

“He would say, ‘Being a Secret Service agent is safer then riding in a taxi cab in Chicago,’ ’’ said Butler. He played down the risk, and he played down any racial bias he may have faced at work or elsewhere.

“Getting him to talk about that whole racial issue was pulling teeth,’’ said Butler.

Mr. Gittens recalled one experience while working on a detail protecting President Lyndon B. Johnson not long after he took office and was visiting Dallas for the first time since John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. In Texas at that time, racial segregation was the law.

Hotel accommodations were no problem, as the Secret Service reserved the rooms, but when he and a group of a white agents went to a restaurant down the street from the hotel for breakfast, they ran into Jim Crow. Mr. Gittens told Butler he walked into the place, past a “No Negroes’’ sign, which he did not imagine applied to him.

“ ‘At that time, I was not a ‘negro,’ I was a Secret Service agent,’ ’’ Butler said, reading from a transcript of an interview he did with Mr. Gittens. Mr. Gittens said he could see the looks on the faces of the other patrons, and soon the manager approached the table to say that Mr. Gittens could not be served.

Several of the white agents were from New York, not accustomed to the South, and “they don’t take a bunch of junk from anyone,’’ Mr. Gittens told Butler. But he convinced them it was best to leave and not make a scene, especially as they were, in a way, representing the president of the United States.

He would say that segregation “was the law of the land,’’ said Butler. “His dilemma was he was sworn to uphold the law. . . . His thing was, we have to get the law changed.’’

Mr. Gittens “didn’t look at anything as a problem,’’ said Butler. “He refused to allow people to bring him down.’’

Butler likened Mr. Gittens to Jackie Robinson, who became the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947. “He would take things with a grain of salt,’’ he said.

Mr. Gittens was preceded in death by Ruthe (Hamme), his first wife of 27 years, who died in 1991. His second marriage to Maureen Espersen (Petersen) of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, ended in divorce. He leaves Sharon Quick, his only child from his first marriage, and Carolyn Espersen of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and Cherri Ann Espersen of Bethesda, Md., both stepdaughters from his second marriage.

Funeral services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington. Burial was at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland.

Arthur Hirsch can be reached at arthurhirsch@att.net.