When a Palmyra Cop Broke the Mold

In 1959, Payton I. Flournoy Sr. was named the first Black police chief in Burlington County, and one of the first in the nation. At a recent Black Lives Matter rally—in a park named after him—his daughter shared part of his story.

Payton I. Flournoy Sr.
Payton I. Flournoy Sr. Courtesy of Palmyra Historical Society

Celeste Flournoy wasn’t planning to speak at Palmyra’s Black Lives Matter rally until one of the organizers asked if there was anyone else who had something to say. Hesitantly, the 70-year-old retired middle school teacher took the bullhorn, eager to share a piece of history.

Flournoy wanted the 400 participants who gathered in early June to know that the park where they were standing had been renamed nine months earlier for her father, Payton I. Flournoy Sr., who, in 1959, was named chief of police in Palmyra. The elder Flournoy was the first Black police chief in Burlington County, and one of the first in the nation. Upon his appointment, reporters from two national magazines, Ebony and Jet, made their way to this small town on the Delaware River to profile the new chief.

“That was before the Civil Rights Act and Martin Luther King,” Flournoy tells New Jersey Monthly of her father’s 16-year run as chief. “We knew it was a big deal, but the impact is even greater now. His purpose surpassed what he did in life—something that not only makes our family proud, but should make the whole community proud.”

Chief Flournoy—an officer for nine years before being appointed chief—was the only Black member of the 10-man force in what was then a predominantly white town of just over 7,000 residents. Today, Palmyra is more diverse, and the police force has almost doubled, but there is still only one Black officer. That said, the Palmyra police department on July 1 marked another milestone, when Meghan Campbell became the first female police chief in Burlington County.

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“Palmyra is ahead of its time,” says Tim Flournoy, Celeste’s 64-year-old brother, a former corrections officer. (Another brother, Payton Flournoy Jr., was a sheriff’s deputy). “We’ve been first in a couple of areas.”

Neither sibling could recall any instances of overt racism growing up in what they describe as a close-knit community, but they were happy to see issues of racial disparity being addressed with events like the June rally.

At the rally, Celeste pondered how her father might have reacted to the moment. “I knew he’d like it,” she says. “To know that all these people were here in this park, named after him. How we’ve made some progress, but you’d expect a little bit more after all this time.”

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