JFK appointed first black Secret Service agent on White House detail
CHICAGO, IL – It’s been more than 50 years, but when your job is to protect a president, you never forget what it was like.
For Abraham Bolden, protecting President John F. Kennedy in 1961 was a “miracle,” for someone who grew up poor in East St. Louis.
“Not one time that the president saw me in the White House, did he pass me and not say, ‘How are you Mr. Bolden?'” Bolden said in an interview this week from his home. “He just seemed like a very rich man who was out of place who should have been among us – a leader among our people.”
Friday, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, marked yet another opportunity for Bolden to recall the several intimate moments he shared with Kennedy and other members of his family and administration. Bolden, 78, joined the United States Secret service in October, 1960 after several years in law enforcement.
He first came face to face with Kennedy less than a year later, after a celebratory stop in Chicago to thank Mayor Richard J. Daley for helping secure votes.
New to the agency and one of only two African-American agents nationwide, Bolden was routinely given what his white agent counterparts considered the “low-level” assignments or posts – such as standing guard in front of restrooms or areas far away from the ‘action.’
“President Kennedy looked at me, he smiled and he said, ‘Tell me, Mr. Bolden…has there ever been a Negro on the White House detail Secret Service in Washington, D.C.?'” Bolden recalls. “I looked at him, I said ‘Not to my knowledge, Mr. President.'”
Just like that.
A few months later, Bolden was inside the White House and traveling alongside the president. He boarded Kennedy’s yacht and sailed with him along the Potomac River, accompanied his family at their vacation home on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and to their farm compound at Glen Ora in Virginia.
Kennedy frequently introduced Bolden to other members of the administration. The president’s friendliness and high praise of Bolden sticks with him to this day.
“He’s the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service,” Bolden recalls Kennedy saying of him. “And it almost brought tears to my eyes.”
Bolden’s euphoria didn’t last long. Just one month into his assignment, he left — disheartened by the racism and reckless behavior of some of his fellow agents. Bolden alleges fellow agents drinking on duty, “womanizing” and putting the president’s life in danger.
Bolden also claims he was called a Ni**er on multiple occasions and subject to racist cartoon drawings and insults. He returned to Chicago to continue his work investigating counterfeit claims.
He wrote a book in 2008, The Echo from Dealey Plaza. It details his time in the Secret Service, as well the story of his 1964 felony conviction for soliciting a $50,000 bribe from a counterfeiter.
Bolden maintains his innocence.
He wasn’t in Dallas on that fateful day in 1963, but still feels in some way responsible for what happened to President Kennedy.
“I was an agent of the United States Secret Service,” Bolden said. “Whatever they did, I did. History is not going to look favorable [sic] on the United States Secret Service. And I was a part of that.”
Bolden is retired and lives in Chicago.
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