Family shares stories behind GR’s first Black woman police officer

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Harriet Woods Hill was a small woman in life, but her image looms large now in downtown Grand Rapids. She died in 2006, leaving a legacy of breaking barriers as the first Black woman to become a police officer in the city, and the first woman to become a detective.

Her son, James Hill, remembers her more for how she raised him.

“She was very loving, warm, and firm. One of her biggest messages was that you have got to live in this world and the world belongs to someone else, but you’ve got to learn how to live in it,” he said.

James Hill and his daughter, Jayme Mentalewicz, stood in front of Harriet’s mural that graces the alleyway next to the police department downtown as they shared what most people didn’t know about her.

Mentalewicz never called her grandmother grandma or nana to her grandchildren, she was always grandma-Dear.

“One of my earliest memories was there was a picture circulating of her in her police uniform. I remember thinking, my grandma-dear has a gun. I’m thinking that was just the coolest and scariest thing at the same time,” Mentalewicz said.

Mentalewicz and her dad are used to people stopping them out in public at the grocery store and other places, asking about Harriet Woods Hill.

“I didn’t understand the impact that she made on everybody until now,” Mentalewicz said.

Born Harriet Woods in 1922, her mother was the first African American to graduate from high school in Mecosta. She wanted to become a nurse when she started at Grand Rapids Junior College but wasn’t able to complete her schooling.

The Grand Rapids Police Department hired her as a typist in 1951. She told her family that she experienced blatant racism from her coworkers but admired the work female officers did with abused and neglected children.

It inspired her to apply to become an officer, which she did in 1955, the first Black woman to do so. She joined the juvenile division, handling any matters involving children, which required some discretion and was the reason she never wore a police uniform. Hill became the first woman to join the department’s detective bureau in 1977.

Having a detective for a mom wasn’t always advantageous for James Hill.

“She was a master at interrogating and interviewing. The one thing you did not do was lie, of all things. It was a real downside,” he joked.

While she helped children out in the community, Harriet Woods Hill worked to teach her own children the lessons she learned from that work.

“For her, it was a matter of you have to survive in this world. Otherwise, someone was going to take advantage of you especially as a Black kid. It was always to be aware of who we interact with, be kind, be loving and always be respectful,” James Hill said.

That ability to connect with children and teenagers never left her, according to her granddaughter.  Mentalewicz described a typical night in her early 20s when she might have a party at home with her parents away.

“It was very common for grandma-dear and granddad to knock on our door at 11 p.m. She would say ‘hey girl, what you drinking?’ and I’d say, ‘you want one?’ She would come in and grab a cocktail and join us,” Mentalewicz explained.

She and her dad are working on creating a youth scholarship in Harriet Woods Hill’s name, something that might help heal the rift they see now between young people and police officers.

“We’re trying to figure out where we want to start, but something with her and bringing the police department and the youth together again to try to rebuild a bond because I feel there is a divide right now,” James Hill said.

You can see the mural of Harriet Woods Hill in the alleyway off Louis Street in downtown Grand Rapids, along with three other murals in the area that are part of the Women’s Way initiative. There are plans in the works to create more murals, but those haven’t been announced yet.  

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