Former Union County slave Aaron Perry continues to inspire his family.
After the Civil War, he helped start several schools and churches, and rallied people to buy war bonds during World War I. That civic spirit was passed down through the generations, including to his great-granddaughter, a trailblazer in her own right.
Former Charlotte resident Jackie Barrett-Washington was the first African-American woman elected sheriff in the United States. She served three terms in the Atlanta area as Fulton County sheriff, from 1992 to 2004.
Barrett-Washington returned to the Charlotte area this weekend for a ceremony honoring Perry and nine other black men from Union County who served in the Confederate Army.
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In an interview, Barrett-Washington said she knew little about Perry’s Civil War activities until recently. She remains proud of him and the others who kept working to improve their communities.
In her family, Barrett-Washington said, such expectations remained a constant theme. “You stay where you are planted, and you perform above and beyond what is expected.”
Barrett-Washington sees herself as part of Perry’s legacy.
She was drawn to law enforcement while growing up during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, believing the best way to promote change was from the inside. She interned with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office before making her way to Atlanta.
By the time she ran for sheriff, she wanted to change any lingering perception that Southern sheriffs were “pot-bellied, cigar-smoking peopleClearly that was not true in the vast majority of cases.”
Her tenure was not without controversy, including a reverse discrimination lawsuit by white officers, and she spoke of “the bumps and bruises of politics.”
When she left office, there were a half-dozen female black sheriffs in the U.S. Barrett-Washington said she felt honored and humbled to be first.
Now she teaches criminology at Spelman College in Atlanta and helped establish a charter school for boys, hoping to inspire another group of leaders just as her great-grandfather did.
“Giving back to our community, it’s part of who we are,” Barrett-Washington said. “And this family is not done yet.”