The new High Point Police headquarters recently opened on Westchester Drive bears the name “O.H. Leak Law Enforcement Center.” The name transfers from the old headquarters building on Leonard Avenue. Linda Willard explores the life of one of High Point’s celebrated police officers recognized by these buildings.
Captain Leak, for whom the old High Point Police Department administrative building was named in 1997, was a well-respected Officer whose actions paved the way for African American officers and equality.
Oriel Hardy Leak was born January 24, 1917, in Montgomery County, North Carolina, the son of a Baptist Minister, the Reverend Tip S. Leak, and Addie Dawkins Leak. O.H. Leak received his early education at Leak Elementary School and the Peabody Academy in Montgomery County. The Peabody Academy was a boarding school for African Americans established in 1880 in Troy, educating African-American students from all areas of Montgomery County.
In 1936, Leak and his wife, Vernelle McClellan Leak, moved to High Point where he found work as a bellhop, first at the Elwood Hotel and later at the Sheraton Hotel. When Leak left his job at the Sheraton Hotel, he was the bell captain. Vernelle Leak worked as secretary to the principal of William Penn High School, High Point’s high school for African American students, now Penn-Griffin School of the Arts.
Photograph of Officers Steele and Leak being sworn in from The High Point Enterprise.
In 1943, Leak and B. Allen Steele passed the Civil Service exam and became the first two African American police officers in High Point. Chief of Police W.G. Friddle administered the oath of office on August 9. Leak and Steele also have the distinction of being the first African American police officers in North Carolina and the second in the South. Once they were sworn in, Leak recalled, “They swore us in, gave us a badge, gun, and a nightstick, drove us down to Washington Street, and said, ‘That’s your beat.’” During the era of racial segregation, East Washington Street was the heart of High Point’s African American business district. If failure was not an option for Susan B. Anthony, it certainly was not an option for Leak. He knew that if he failed, all of the old stereotypes about African Americans would have been reinforced in the minds of many citizens of High Point.
Leak and Steele worked their beat on Washington Street for five years, seven days a week. They had one day a year off and that was Christmas Day. Leak once said that he was so accustomed to going to work, that he often forgot to take Christmas Day off.
Despite being a member of the High Point Police Department, Leak was not allowed to drive a squad car and had to conduct his patrols on foot. In 1948, after two additional African-American police officers were hired, he was finally given a squad car.
Another pair of African American officers were hired in 1951. In 1952, Leak and Steele were promoted from patrolmen to plainclothes detectives to handle all major felonies in the two majority-African-American sections of town.
Photograph of High Point African American police officers from a 1955 publication of the North Carolina Negro Law Enforcement Officers’ Association. B. Allen Steele retired in 1956.
A High Point Police Department badge belonging to O.H. Leak is on exhibit at the Museum. The current HPPD badge, adopted in 1997, contains an image of the Leonard Avenue building named in Leak’s honor.
In May 1952, Leak helped establish the North Carolina Negro Law Enforcement Officers’ Association, now called the North State Law Enforcement Officers Association. This was a statewide group organized to train African American police officers and help with their career development. At the time, African American police officers received little training from their departments. When officers attended training sessions in various cities across the state, they couldn’t stay in hotels. They had to stay in private homes and hold the training sessions at local churches. Leak was president in 1954-55 and the association named him their officer of the year in 1965, the same year the High Point Exchange Club honored him with policeman of the year.
In September 1966, he was promoted to Detective Lieutenant. His promotion was based on written and oral examinations given by the Civil Serve Commission and also on his record of service in the High Point Police Department.
Leak worked on three Presidential special assignments in the 1960s. In 1961, he was a member of the security detail for John F. Kennedy when he visited the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. He also served at the inaugurations of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 and President Richard Nixon in 1969. Leak stated that shaking hands with President Kennedy was “the greatest experience of my life.”
In 1971, he was promoted to Captain and recognized as one of the highest-ranking African American police officers in a police department in the South.
The U.S. Secretary of Defense invited him to travel to Germany in 1972 to talk with African-American soldiers stationed there. Leak was to listen to the complaints of minority soldiers and make recommendations to the Secretary of Defense on relieving racial tensions.
Leak retired in September 1975, as Captain of the Criminal Investigation Division, after 32 years on the High Point force. He suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and spent the last few years of his life as a resident of Maryfield Nursing Home. He died on April 24, 2001. The funeral service was held at the Greater First United Baptist Church in High Point with burial at the Carolina Biblical Gardens.
On February 20, 1997, the High Point City Council voted to place the name of O.H. Leak on the police department building on Leonard Avenue. Another African American retired HPPD officer and former City Council member, Lawrence Graves, proposed naming the building after Leak. Graves said that Leak did not limit himself to race or creed, but served the entire city. Many dignitaries and High Point citizens spoke of their respect and admiration for this trailblazing officer at the dedication ceremony in April 1997.
Leak’s community involvement wasn’t limited to his work on the police force. He was also active in his church and the community: board of directors of Wachovia Bank (present-day Wells Fargo Bank), Carl Chavis YMCA, and High Point Hospital (present-day Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist High Point Medical Center), a member of the Greater First United Baptist Church, and the Business and Professional Men’s Club of High Point, board of directors of Youth Care, past member of the Governor's Committee on Schools, Governor’s Council on Juvenile Delinquency, North Carolina Committee on Crime Prevention and Law Enforcement, and Governor Jim Hunt’s Juvenile Code Revision Committee.
Contributed by Linda Willard. Linda says, “I don’t think they are making police officers like Mr. Leak anymore! He was an amazing man.” HPPD historian Roy Shipman, Rev. Angela Roach Roberson, and Phyllis Bridges contributed to Linda’s research for this blog. Roy Shipman’s book on the history of the High Point Police Department is available to purchase at the Museum or for reference at the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library.
Linda Willard is an active member of the High Point Historical Society, the High Point Preservation Society, and Friends of John Coltrane among other local history and cultural organizations. Her love of history has led her to research Quakers and High Point’s African American community, including the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute/William Penn High School and Oakwood Cemetery’s “Colored Section.” Linda won a publication award in 2020 from the North Carolina Society of Historians and its Award of Excellence in 2021.