Arva Marie Johnson
“It was strange and different to be working around a lot of men knowing that you are the only female that’s on the day shift, and knowing that they really didn’t want to work with you, and then trying to hold a conversation—sometimes we didn’t talk at all. And then sometimes you might get somebody that wanted to talk about their job… . Well, some of them would say, ‘Why would you want to be here? Wouldn’t you rather be at home with your child, cooking?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘I don’t think you’d be able to handle this job.’ I said, ‘I think I can.’ So I had to really prove myself. And then as time went on, they saw that I wanted to do the job, and I could do the job, and I was willing to stand by them and do it. So it all changed. It was good, and they started to accept me.”
— Arva Marie Johnson, March 1, 2007
Arva Marie Johnson joined the Capitol Police Force in 1974, becoming the first African-American female officer, the first uniformed female officer, and one of only four women on the force at the time. Her unprecedented 32-year career as an officer spanned the most comprehensive security changes in the history of the Capitol. In her interview, Johnson recalled her strategies to combat daily gender inequity; documented the reforms to overturn racial discrimination in the force’s promotion process; detailed the changes to Capitol security following the Senate bombing in 1983 and the terrorist attacks in 2001; and discussed her warm relationships with colleagues and Members of Congress. More than a history of the Capitol Police Force, Johnson’s interview offered candid reflections on both her sense of duty and her steadfast optimism.
Arva Marie Johnson was born on February 3, 1950, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Having attended public schools, Johnson graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1968. Six years later, a family member working on the Hill informed her that the Capitol Police Force was hiring women officers. Johnson applied and accepted a position in 1974, becoming the force’s first uniformed female officer—three other women worked in the plainclothes detail.
During her 32-year career, Johnson participated in sweeping changes to Capitol security. As a young officer during the late 1970s—before the widespread use of X-ray machines and metal detectors—Johnson and her colleagues hand-searched bags. Following the Senate bombing in 1983, the shooting death of two friends and colleagues at the Capitol in 1998, and the terrorist attacks in 2001, security tightened dramatically and, among other adjustments, Johnson received sophisticated training in chemical and bomb identification. Over the course of Johnson’s time on the Hill, the Capitol Police Force developed into a leading anti-terrorism organization.
As the Capitol Police Force grew, Johnson spearheaded efforts to reform many of its internal policies, lobbying for better promotion opportunities and special assignments for women officers. As a founding member of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association—a group organized on behalf of career advancement for minority officers—she and her colleagues successfully pressed for an overhaul of the force’s promotion process during the 1990s.
Johnson’s commitment to the force earned her praise from colleagues and Members alike. As one Congressman said, “She’s the kind of person that you would want your whole department to be like.” Johnson left the Capitol Police Force in 2007 when department policy required that she retire at the age of 57.
1998 Shooting of Two Capitol Police Officers
Reaction to learning of the shooting deaths of two friends and colleagues.
On Being the First African-American Woman on the Force
Reflection on what it meant to be the first African-American woman on the Capitol Police Force.
Reflections on Being the Only Woman on the Day Shift
Description of the reactions of and resistance by male officers.