First black Secret Service agent dies

August 10, 2011

Charles L. Gittens, the first African American agent in the Secret Service and the former head of the agency’s Washington field office, died July 27 at an assisted living center in Mitchellville after a heart attack. He was 82.

An Army veteran, Mr. Gittens joined the Secret Service in 1956 and was soon posted to its New York field office, where he was part of an elite “special detail” that targeted counterfeiters and other criminals across the country.

Mr. Gittens would go on to protect presidents and became a well-respected supervisor.

“He was a great agent,” said Mark Sullivan, director of the Secret Service. “When you talk to people who worked with him, the one thing I hear is that he was just a regular guy. . . . A lot of agents, black and white, have benefited from the things he has done. He led by example, and he set the standards for all of us to follow.”

Charles LeRoy Gittens was born Aug. 31, 1928, in Cambridge, Mass. He left high school to join the Army, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant and was posted in Japan during the Korean War.


Charles L. Gittens, who joined the Secret Service in 1956, served as head of the agency’s Washington field office. (COURTESY OF U.S. SECRET SERVICE)

He obtained a GED while in the military and, after his discharge, received a bachelor’s degree from what is now North Carolina Central University.

In the 1950s, while teaching at a high school in North Carolina, Mr. Gittens was encouraged by friends to apply for a job in federal law enforcement. After taking a civil service test, he was recruited by the Secret Service.

However, he almost never became an agent because he failed an oral entrance exam, according to a 1974 story in Ebony magazine.

“Can you imagine such a thing?” Mr. Gittens told Ebony. “The guy in charge had scribbled things down like, ‘speaks incoherently’ or ‘can’t be understood.’ Now a Boston accent is a pretty strange thing in Atlanta, Georgia — that much I can assure you. But that was really too much.”

Mr. Gittens implied that the real reason may have been racism. He was then given another test and passed.

Though Mr. Gittens told friends he never felt discrimination from other agents or supervisors, he still faced it on the job. While guarding President Lyndon B. Johnson on a trip to Dallas, he and other agents entered a restaurant, and its manager initially refused to serve him because he was black, according to the Ebony story.

“The other guys were a lot angrier than I was,” Mr. Gittens told the magazine. “But the manager came out and apologized profusely. And we eventually got served.”

Mr. Gittens protected other presidents and stood just a few steps from John F. Kennedy at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1962 when Marilyn Monroe serenaded him with a sultry version of “Happy Birthday.”

In 1971, Mr. Gittens was appointed special agent in charge of the Washington field office, a prestigious posting in which he supervised about 120 agents. Mr. Gittens — a founding member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives — also was tasked in the 1970s by the Secret Service with helping to boost the recruitment of minority and female agents. The Service now has 3,525 agents, of whom 299 are black.

After retiring in 1979, he joined the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations and became deputy director of the criminal division.

His first marriage, of 28 years, to Ruth Hamme ended in divorce. His 10-year marriage to Maureen Petersen also ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Sharon Quick of Washington, and two stepdaughters. .

Mr. Gittens settled in the Washington area in 1971 and moved last year from Fort Washington to Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Mitchellville.

Although regarded as a Secret Service trailblazer, Mr. Gittens earned respect from agents by hitting the streets. In the mid-1970s, he was monitoring a counterfeiting bust when the suspect suddenly bolted. Mr. Gittens dashed after the man and tackled him, said Ike Hendershot, a retired agent.

“When the other agents finally caught up,” Hendershot said, “they were out of breath.”

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