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First black American to become one of the presidents’ men

Charles Gittens, 1928-2011 Top gun … Charles Gittens led 100 Secret Service staffers. Charles Gittens was the US’s first black Secret Service agent and helped to protect six presidents, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter. He joined the service in 1956, the same year Martin Luther King jnr rose to prominence in the civil rights movement. Such was the enduring extent of racism in the US that, eight years later, during a visit to Dallas by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Gittens was confronted by a sign refusing service to ”coloured” people; the embarrassed restaurant manager apologised. In 1971, Gittens was promoted to lead the Secret Service’s Washington bureau. The Washington office received most of the ”protective intelligence” cases of abusive mail, often with threats to the president. Advertisement: Story continues below Over the years, ”protection” came to include all kinds of duties. On one occasion, Gittens was summoned by a near-hysterical Jacqueline Kennedy, only to find that a bat had strayed into her room at the presidential compound at Hyannisport. ”Don’t kill it,” she commanded him. ”Just make it go away.” A willingness to carry out such tasks did not mean Gittens was happy to be a servant. ”A Secret Service man is not a butler or a valet,” he once observed. ”Most people respect our professionalism. But often we are asked to perform a certain kind of service, such as the carrying of packages. We always refuse. How can we protect them if we’re struggling with a suitcase?” Charles Leroy Gittens was born on August 31, 1928, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of seven children of a contractor who had immigrated from Barbados. After high school he served in the US Army in Japan for three years. In 1955, Gittens graduated from North Carolina College, where he studied English and Spanish and worked as a teacher. After joining the Secret Service, he spent 10 years working in New York where, apart from protection, his main task was to investigate cases involving counterfeit currency and forged federal government cheques and bonds. Once appointed to Washington, Gittens led a staff of 100 and encouraged the enlistment of black recruits to join the 37 already among the service’s 1200 agents. Asked about the odds of being shot on the job, Gittens reckoned he was a lot safer than a Chicago cabbie. In 1963, he was guarding John Kennedy at Hyannisport. The President sank into his rocking chair, glanced Gittens’s way and said: ”Come here, Charlie.” ”I responded,” Gittens recalled. ”No sooner had I done so when this little dog rushes past me and jumps into his lap.” It was Charlie the President’s dog. ”President Kennedy just laughed his head off.” Telegraph, London

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