Archey overcomes hardship to become Indiana's first black sheriff

When Oatess Archey, the first black sheriff in Indiana, returned to his hometown of Marion in 1959, he applied for a teaching position at Marion High School.

Archey, a fresh college graduate, was offered a job, but not the one he desired -- a janitorial position.

As he picked up trash with a pointed stick, he was sometimes spit on by some of the students.

"Marion said they were not ready for a black teacher," Archey said. "They said 'If you want to work for the Marion Community School System, you're going to be a janitor. You can line the track (or) line the football field. Welcome home.'"

Archey spoke to a small audience comprised mainly of criminal justice students Thursday evening in Student Center Cardinal Hall. His presentation relied heavily on his past, and he said he hopes "none of you have to start out like I did."

Archey's life, however, began shifting in a more desirable direction. He soon became the first black teacher in Marion County, and he later received a teaching position at Ball State, where he also served as an assistant track coach.

"My track coach always told me that there would be a lot of hurdles," Archey said. "An obstacle doesn't become a hurdle unless you take your eyes off the goal.

"I think all of my experiences have made me a better person. They have all allowed me to work through the system."

In 1973, an old coach told Archey that he should look into the Federal Bureau of Investigation because they were hiring black applicants.

Because of his coach's advice, Archey became the 85th black agent in the FBI, working on the World Trade Center bombing and the shooting of President Ronald Reagan.

"I had the opportunity to be the first to take the call from (the) Secret Service when Ronald Reagan was shot -- this is the guy from Marion, Indiana; the janitor," Archey said. "It's not where you come from in life, it's where you're going."

After 20 years of service to the FBI, Archey was recruited for several executive security positions, including the 1994 World Cup Soccer Tournament and the Rose Bowl Tournament in Pasadena, Texas.

"I went from the toilet bowl ... to the Rose Bowl," he said.

In the early 1990s Archey and his wife decided to move back to Grant County to be with his mother-in-law, who was living alone. He said he did not foresee the next hurdle he would face -- running for sheriff of the counties.

"My wife asked me, 'What are you going to do with your life back here? Why don't you give back all you have, all you've learned. Why don't you run for sheriff?'" Archey said.

Archey decided to take his wife's advice and run for sheriff in 1999, but he said he was discouraged for reasons both similar and different to those in 1959.

"Guess what I faced the second time," he said. "'You're over-qualified.' 'You've been gone too long.' 'You haven't paid any taxes.' 'You don't know the issues.' You're black, and Grant County is 91 percent white.' But I didn't give up."

Archey faced a plethora of opposition, he said, including Ku Klux Klan rallies. Eventually, though, he came out a few hundred votes ahead in Grant County -- a place where, in the 1930s, the sheriff stood back and watched the Ku Klux Klan lynch two black teen-agers beside the County Courthouse.

"It took Indiana 183 years to elect its first black sheriff -- 183 years," Archey said with a smile on his face. "And you can always say you heard the first black sheriff of Indiana give a presentation at Ball State University."