Remembering William Hughes: Family, friends speak on legacy of one of Shelby County’s first black deputies

Published: May. 21, 2022 at 9:53 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A man who paved the way for officers and deputies in Memphis and Shelby County, Williams Hughes, passed away Sunday, May 15.

In November, 1960, Hughes was a catalyst in a wave of black officers who would later sign on to serve the Memphis and Shelby County area.

“Many black people who joined the force or at least had the opportunity to join the force were directly related to what (Hughes) had done, the doors that he opened, and the leadership that he provided,” said Alex Hanna.

Hanna was Hughes’s next-door neighbor in the Walker Homes neighborhood of Memphis and was only 9-year-old when Hughes joined the force, but his memory of the historic moment were recalled like it happened just recently.

“Once (Hughes) became a deputy, it was just fantastic for our neighborhood,” said Alex Hanna. “It was the first time that I had seen a black man being able to wear a service revolver, to drive a patrol car.”

“(Hughes) was excited. He really was,” said Hughes’s wife Elizabeth.

Probably no one could speak to that excitement more than Elizabeth, who was married to Hughes for 73 years.

At 88-years-old, her memory wasn’t what it once was, but her love for her husband remains as strong as it was in the beginning.

“He was a good man,” Elizabeth said. “That’s all I can say about him.”

“(Hughes) would come home and have time for his family,” Hanna followed. “Those are the things that I will never never forget.”

Hughes didn’t stop at deputy, he climbed the ranks to eventually become Director of Shelby County Fire and Corrections, at the same time.

“It was really exciting to watch him go from one rank to the other,” Hughes said.

Other accomplishments include:

  • Achieved ranks of Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain & Jail Inspector
  • Assistant Chief/Internal Affairs Bureau for Shelby County Sheriff’s Department
  • Director of Fire and Corrections & Superintendent of the Shelby County Penal Farm
  • Court Security Officer for the United States Marshal Service
  • F.B.I. National Academy - University of Virginia (114th Session - 1977 Graduate)
  • Graduate: United States Secret Service Law Enforcement Assistance Administration
  • “Dignitary Protection Seminar”, Washington, D.C. 1978 - White House

During his lifetime his accomplishments were widely recognized & acknowledged:

  • 1974 “Lawman of the Year” Sponsored by Civitan Club, Memphis, Tennessee
  • 1977 “Most Outstanding Deputy Sheriff” by the Memphis & Shelby County Bar Association
  • First African American Assistant Chief in Law Enforcement in Tennessee
  • Second African American Graduate of the F.B.I. National Academy from Tennessee
  • First African American Superintendent, Shelby County Correction Center, Memphis, Tennessee
  • First Director of Fire & Corrections, Shelby County Government
  • Past Entertainment Committee Member - F.B.I. National Academy Associates Section II

While Hanna chose not pursue law enforcement as a profession, others did.

“I followed Mr. Hughes,” Stanley Lipford said “I worked for the jail. I left and went to Mississippi Boulevard and worked there, worked with him.”

Lipford was like Hanna, marveling at Hughes’s accomplishments, speaking on the level of respect the man commanded.

“(Hughes) patrolled our neighborhood, and as a young fella we used to hang out on street corners. He’d drive by and tell us ‘when I come back, you’ll need to be gone,’ and when he came back, we were gone,” Lipford laughed.

Through that seemingly hard exterior, Lipford would later see how Hughes always wanted to be actively involved in the lives of his neighbors and community members.

“You cannot omit how much he cared about people,” Lipford said. “There will never be another person with the amount of humility, the amount of courage, all his characteristics. They always say ‘somebody broke the mold.’ That mold broke. That mold is broken.”

A couple of generations down the line, Hughes’s granddaughter Elizabeth Merriwether uses lessons taught to her by him.

“It was pressure,” Merriwether admitted. “In the back of my mind as I was moving through Shelby County government, I realized that my grandfather had already made a name. If something happened, it may not be ‘Elizabeth Merriwether.’ It would be ‘Mr. Hughes’s granddaughter.’”

Through that pressure, she saw a challenge for her to accomplish, to live up to the level of excellence her grandfather established in his family and in his community.

“I always wanted to be the best; I always wanted to achieve greatness. My name means something to me,” Merriwether said.

“He’s demonstrated to all of us how you maintain and how you conduct yourself and how you take care of your family,” Lipford added.

Hughes passed at the age of 90, and while many like the ones mentioned here have grieved his loss, they also praise the legacy he left.

“I’m just grateful that he opened the doors for so many others,” Hanna said.

“I think he left a legacy of service, of family and of being a believer.” Merriwether said. “That will always stick with me, and I hope I pass that along to my children.”

As Lipford said, “When we used to talk about ‘I want to be like Mike, we were saying ‘I want to be like Mr. Hughes.”

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