Navarro County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Morris Steward went to work at the sheriff’s office at the urging of his aunt, Margaret Smart, who worked in the old jail. But he’s been there now for 25 years, working his way up from jailer to the second-highest position in the department.
Being African American didn’t help him get where he is, but racism hasn’t held him back, either, he said.
“Racism is out there, but I’ve never had it projected to me,” he said. “But you have to have a thick skin. If everything hurts your feelings, this isn’t the job for you. But if you’re strong in your convictions and like helping people, there’s no better job.”
He recalled one instance where he responded to a call and the person asked dispatch to send out a white deputy, instead. When the man was told Steward was the only deputy available, the report was handled professionally and nothing else was said about it.
Steward can remember many more times, both within the jail and out in the community, where he’s had great support from people because of his professionalism and because he treats everyone, even suspected criminals, with respect.
He described one arrest where the people in the house actually helped him apprehend a suspect who didn’t want to come peacefully.
“That’s Steward,” the witnesses said, and they helped collar their friend and put him in the car.
The justice system, ideally, is color-blind, Steward said, because a jury will be made up of people of all colors, and they decide a suspect’s fate. But it’s also important to have the trust of the community, and having officers of color can help there, Steward said.
“Law enforcement departments need to reflect the people they serve,” he said. “You get a better reception in the community.”
A bigger color line is the so-called thin blue line, the separation between police and the public, which can leave officers feeling isolated. But this is Steward’s home town, and he knows a lot of folks, both criminal and law-abiding.
“We’re people just like you are. We go to the same restaurants and grocery store,” he said of peace officers. “You’ve just got to be professional. Treat people the way you want to be treated and you won’t have an issue.”
Although he’s done almost every job within the sheriff’s office, Steward said his favorite was working patrol. At the time, the patrol division included Elmer Tanner, Randy Clay, Calvin Gray and Hank Bailey.
“It was fun working with those guys,” he said. “You knew if they were working you were going to get home safe. They were good days.”
Steward grew up in Dawson where he was involved in a variety of sports from football to track.
“It kept us out of trouble,” he explained.
He placed fourth in hurdles at state when he was a senior and was offered a partial scholarship to Wylie College for track, but he didn’t take it. He attended Navarro College for awhile and then went to work for Jetco in Corsicana.
He married the former Valerie Smith when he was 21 years old. Still married 30 years later, they have one daughter, Letitia, who’s about to graduate from college.
When he filled out that application to work in the jail, Sheriff Jim Hodge asked if Steward could start that night. Steward went to Jetco and put in his resignation, and they let him go immediately to start his new career.
“Twenty-five years later, I have no regrets,” Steward said.
He’s had opportunities over the years to go to other agencies and in bigger cities, but he stayed near home, near family. He knew where his priorities lay.
“I felt like I needed to be here,” he said.
Steward worked his way up from the bottom, learning as we went, but he’d advise young people interested in the career to go to the police academy and learn the laws and penal code to get a leg up. But working in the jail gave him insights into the people he’d continue to see in the career. People he booked once he’d often see again, and he earned their respect.
He also advises young people not to job hop.
“Find a profession that will take you through life,” he said. “And retire at it. My job isn’t always peaches and cream, but I don’t hate coming to work. Especially if you’re working with a friend. It makes it easier.”
Morris Steward is Chief Deputy of the Navarro County Sheriff’s Office and a board member of the Child Advocacy Center.
Janet Jacobs may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to “sound off” to this article? E-mail: Soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com
Editor’s Note: In observance of Black History Month, the Daily Sun will feature profiles of leaders in the community who themselves benefited from the guidance and counsel of those whom they admired.