COLUMBIA, S.C. — Estelle Young is a fighter - in the best kind of way.
From marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights to being the first black female captain of the Columbia Police Department, Young has spent her life fighting to create safe, equitable communities for all.
FIGHTING FOR CIVIL RIGHTS
Young traces her servant leadership back to her beloved Ridgewood neighborhood in North Columbia. Young says she received constant love and encouragement from the adults in this tight-knit community growing up.
"Outside of the community, we were considered ghetto," Young said. "(We were told) 'You are not going to be anything, you are not going to do anything in life,' so I had to prove to them that we will be something in life."
Benjamin Mack, a crucial figure in Columbia in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an advisor to Dr. King, was among the people in her corner.
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Young says her time with Dr. King and Mack taught her, "you've got to hang with the good and the bad, you're going to be called names, but you don't retaliate." The former captain says her time with Dr. King and Mack helped her handle the discrimination she faced as an officer.
In high school, Young worked at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was responsible for preparing black people for literacy tests so they could vote. She also participated in marches to integrate businesses in downtown Columbia. As a civil rights activist, her work took her to Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday.
FIGHTING FOR A PLACE IN LAW ENFORCEMENT
Young decided to get into law enforcement after witnessing a police officer beat a man on the street. "That's when I decided I have got to help make a difference," Young said.
She started her work with the Columbia Police Department as a Meter Maid in 1968. "When I joined the police department, there were no females," Young explained. "The only females that were affiliated with the police department were the meter maids."
Thanks to encouragement from Ethel Greene, the first African-American female Columbia Police officer, Young decided to become an officer.
After graduating from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, she was sworn in as an officer in 1979.
Young was not only one of the few African Americans, she was also one of the very few black females in the department.
"We had to go into roll call and hear racist jokes every morning," Young recounted. "Eventually, I turned the tables, and sometimes I would beat them to the punch and tell my joke, and I think that's what helped me endure."
In addition to racist remarks and inequitable compensation, Young said she had to endure verbal and physical threats from some white community members.
She said there were many times when they would call dispatch and ask for a white officer when she responded to a 9-1-1 call. "It was okay because I would always tell them, 'if you don't want me, then you don't really need the police because I'm the best thing they got,'" she explained.
Young said she loved her job despite the challenges and was determined to retire from the department. "A lot of times, the officers or supervisors would try to get you so angry that if you did the wrong thing, they could fire you on the spot, but I always felt, I'm retiring from this position because I really like it."
She was keenly aware that her position as a law enforcement officer would pave the way for the other black people and women who wanted to enter this field. "It wasn't always easy, but it was good to know that I could open a door because I did the right thing,” she said.
In 2002, Young became the first black female captain of the Columbia Police Department and said she received an outpouring of support as she transitioned into her new role. "I used to tell them (officers), 'if you work for me, I can work for you, and if we work together, we can have great accomplishments,'" said Young.
Young is also the first female to attain the rank of captain and inspector.
In 2008, she was a finalist for the Chief of Police position.
FIGHTING FOR POSITIVE POLICE AND COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIPS
In the early 1990s, Young was responsible for implementing and leading community policing. She worked in the area of community policing for 9 years and implemented 26 youth programs.
"I made the community feel good all the time because I stayed in their communities, I worked in their communities...I'm here to tell you; I think I knew everybody in Columbia," Young said with a smile. "Everybody was happy when I got promoted (to captain) because they knew I didn't go on the job to play; I did my job. And I insisted that the guys that work for me do their job. So in the mornings, after they had roll call, I hit the streets with them. I knew what was going on in any community I was assigned to ... they couldn't say we had a captain who stayed behind the desk."
Young was also the Executive Advisor for Explorers at the department and served in that capacity for 23 years.
More than a dozen of her former explorers work in law enforcement, including Deputy Chief Melron Kelly. "I'm just proud of the fact that they saw enough in me to want to emulate what I did," she said.
Young also implemented the "Fan The Heat" program, "Shop with a Cop," and mentoring programs within the department.
After 42 years of service, Young retired from the Columbia Police Department in 2011.
Her work as an officer, captain, and community advocate has earned her more than a dozen awards and recognitions.
Young is still very active in her community. She is a lifelong member of Ridgewood Baptist Church, where she sings in the choir and serves with the children's ministry, and she works with several mentoring programs.
Young has enjoyed a lot of time traveling around the world and coordinates trips for the Ridgewood Foundation.
The highly decorated captain is also spending her retirement enjoying time with her family, including her grandchildren and great-grandson.
Her son and grandson also work in law enforcement. Young and her son were the first mother-son team in the Columbia Police Department.
When reflecting on her legacy, Young said she is proud to have inspired people to pursue a career in law enforcement.
"I just tried to do whatever I could for the people, not just here, but in Columbia. I thank God for the position," Young said.