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Maryland's first Black sheriff, Joseph Lee Somerville, dies at 81

In 1977, Somerville became both the first Black sheriff in St. Mary’s County and in Maryland when he was appointed to complete the previous sheriff’s term.
Credit: St. Mary's County Sheriff's Department

ST. MARY'S COUNTY, Md. — Joseph Lee Somerville, the first Black sheriff in St. Mary’s County as well as in Maryland, has died at age 81.

Somerville’s terms in office from 1977 to 1982 were historic. A native of Loveville, Maryland, Somerville was St. Mary’s County’s first Black sheriff’s deputy when he joined the force in 1966.

Back in 1977, Somerville became both the first black sheriff in St. Mary’s County and in the state of Maryland when he was appointed by the governor to complete the previous sheriff’s term. Somerville went on to win the 1978 election for St. Mary’s County Sheriff, which then made him the first elected Black sheriff in St. Mary’s County and in Maryland as well.

According to “America’s First, A History of America’s Oldest Continuously Operating Sheriff’s Office," at the time of the 1978 election, Somerville was only the sixth Black sheriff in the entire country.

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Somerville saw two of his sons continue in his tradition of law enforcement as Kevin Darryl Somerville served with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for 25 years. Kevin also ran for St. Mary’s County Sheriff in the 2006 Democratic primary, according to county officials.

Cpl. Joseph Lee Somerville Jr. has been with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 26 years.

"I felt like he was a great guy to work for – very approachable,” Sheriff Tim Cameron said of Sheriff Somerville. “I always felt like he genuinely cared about all of us. Sheriff Somerville was a genuinely good man and on top of that, a genuinely good police officer. I really enjoyed working for him."

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