On April 28, 1961, President John F. Kennedy arrived in Chicago for a thank-you dinner with Mayor Richard Daley at McCormick Place. Abraham W Bolden Sr had then joined the U.S. Secret Service, becoming their second Black agent, after Charles L. Gittens, who was hired in 1956.
At the 1961 dinner at McCormick Place, some agents got the coveted spots inside the McCormick Place banquet room near the president. Bolden’s assignment however was to guard a basement restroom that had been set aside for Kennedy’s exclusive use. After Kennedy had used the restroom, he stopped in front of Bolden and the two spoke briefly. According to Bolden in his memoir, “The Echo from Dealey Plaza,”, Kennedy asked him if a Black Secret Service agent had ever been assigned to the White House.
By the following month, Bolden was working at the White House, as the first Black Secret Service agent to serve on a presidential detail. That job would cause problems for him.
Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, on January 19, 1935, Bolden attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri on a music scholarship and graduated cum laude in 1956. He then got married and became the first African American to get a job as a detective at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bolden went on to serve as an Illinois State Highway Patrolman before joining the Secret Service in October 1960 and getting appointed to Kennedy’s Secret Service detail in 1961, aged 26. Kennedy at the time introduced him as “the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service”.
Bolden while working at the White House had to fight racism. His Secret Service agent assignment also became an unpleasant experience after he made complaints about agents chasing women, coming to work unfit, missing shifts, and drinking on the job. And what got him fired in 1964 from the Secret Service was when he threatened to expose information regarding the lack of proper security for Kennedy following his assassination.
Besides getting fired, Bolden was charged with trying to sell a government file in exchange for a $50,000 bribe. He denied the allegations and said he was being framed for trying to expose misconduct within the Secret Service. After a hung jury in his first trial, Bolden was convicted at his second and sentenced to six years in prison, despite some witnesses saying they had been encouraged to lie during the trial. Bolden served 39 months in federal prison at Springfield, with two-and-a-half-year probation.
He came back to Chicago and worked for some companies there while making attempts to clear his name. Education consultant Roosevelt Wilson pleaded Bolden’s case to four presidents.
“I kept waiting for someone in D.C. with some guts to clear this man, and it never happened,” Wilson told Chicago Sun-Times in 2021. “I started with Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush and Barack Obama. I didn’t write Trump because I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Then Biden.”
On Tuesday, Bolden, now 86, became the first recipient of a presidential pardon from President Joe Biden. He was among three people to have been pardoned by Biden.
“America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation,” the president said. “Helping those who served their time return to their families and become contributing members of their communities is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism [repeat offending] and decrease crime.”
The other two pardoned are Betty Jo Bogans, 51, from Houston, Texas, and 52-year-old Dexter Eugene Jackson, from Athens, Georgia. The two served sentences for non-violent drug crimes. According to Biden, Bolden, Bogans, and Jackson “have demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities”.
Bolden already has several awards including the 2008 Scottish Hugo’s Companion Tankard Award for Courage and the 2008 African American Arts Alliance Award for Excellence.