James Reaves, a leader on Philadelphia police force

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James N. Reaves

Memorial services will be held Thursday, May 5, for former Philadelphia Police Capt. James N. Reaves, 99, a trailblazer for African Americans on the city's police force.

Mr. Reaves, of West Philadelphia and then Pennsauken, died Wednesday, March 16, of dementia in Ohio, where he lived with family.

He joined the force in 1940, the only African American among 175 recruits that year. He worked as a uniformed patrolman for five years, and spent eight more in the juvenile aid division.

While there, he rose to sergeant and then lieutenant.

In 1954, Mr. Reaves made history when he became the department's first black captain under the civil service merit system, according to his resumé. He was assigned to the 16th District, based at 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue.

He served as a captain of three other precincts before being transferred in 1963 to head the community relations division. Mr. Reaves commanded the 22nd District for a year and then retired in June 1965.

"He was a role model for the people who knew him," former Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams told the Inquirer in 1990. Williams died Tuesday at his home in Fayetteville, Ga.

Mr. Reaves wrote a history of African American policemen in Philadelphia that was published as Black Cops in 1991. He wrote it, he said, to honor the lesser-known officers who helped push for racial parity on the force.

For those people, he said, "there's absolutely nothing written in terms of history."

"You get a smattering here, newspaper articles there, archives at City Hall," he said. "I saw a lot of things happening in the Police Department relative to black policemen that I thought should be recorded."

In 1965, Mr. Reaves joined the Housing Authority as a project manager. In 1971, he rose to director of security, and he used the position to centralize operations in one location and increase the number of officers from 146 to 243.

He retired in 1981. In 1994, the authority honored him with induction into its Police Hall of Fame.

The son of Earley M. and Leroy F. Reaves, he grew up in South Philadelphia. He graduated from Central High School in 1938. He attended Lincoln University and later received a certificate in criminal justice from the University of Pennsylvania.

A self-described "organization man," he was an early member of the Fraternal Order of Police, becoming its first African American national conference delegate in 1953. In 1954, he joined the Guardian Civic League, an organization that serves police officers, including minorities.

"He was more energetic, more consistent in attending meetings and events than most people half his age," said Rochelle Bilal, the league's president. "He was also good at giving advice. A member was having a problem, and he said, 'This is what you need to do.' "

Mr. Reaves was a member of the Southeast Police Chiefs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

He served on the board of directors of the Travelers Aid Society, NAACP, Parkside YMCA, American Red Cross, and the Boy Scouts of America.

He married Vivienne L. Reaves in 1944. The two enjoyed entertaining and foreign travel; they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary aboard a cruise ship. She died in 2005.

Mr. Reaves is survived by six grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; a sister; and nieces and nephews. A son, Joseph, died in 1990; another son, Alan, died in 2015.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 5, at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, 6361 Lancaster Ave., followed by interment at Ivy Hill Cemetery.

Donations can be made to the Guardian Civic League, James N. Reaves Scholarship Fund, 1516 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia 19130.

bcook@phillynews.com

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