Joseph Lee Somerville, the first Black sheriff in St. Mary’s County as well as in Maryland, died on Thursday of undisclosed causes. He was 81.
Somerville’s terms in office from 1977 to 1982 were historic, the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office wrote in news release announcing his death. A native of Loveville, Somerville was also the county’s first Black sheriff’s deputy when he joined the force in 1966.
In 1977, Somerville became both the first Black sheriff in St. Mary’s and in the state when he was appointed by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) to fill a vacancy following the death of Sheriff George Sanger in September 1976.
On March 1, 1977, Somerville was sworn in on the steps of the county courthouse in Leonardtown among a crowd of 350 people, according to a March 3, 1977, report in The Enterprise newspaper.
Somerville went on to win the November 1978 election for a full term.
At the time of that election, Somerville was only the sixth Black sheriff in the U.S., according to “America’s First, A History of America’s Oldest Continuously Operating Sheriff’s Office.”
Somerville, 39 at the time, said he hoped his election would set an example for the rest of Maryland’s counties to follow, according to the sheriff’s office.
“I say that we broke history when the Ark and Dove landed. That was a day of tolerance and celebration,” Somerville said at his swearing-in ceremony in December 1978. “Today, I feel the same with me being sworn in as sheriff and representing the people in St. Mary’s County,” he said in the Dec. 20, 1978, issue of The Enterprise.
St. Mary’s current Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) was a patrol officer during Somerville’s first elected term.
“I felt like he was a great guy to work for – very approachable,” Cameron said in a statement. “I always felt like he genuinely cared about all of us.”
He was “a genuinely good man and on top of that, a genuinely good police officer. I really enjoyed working for him,” Cameron said.
Somerville was defeated for reelection in 1982 and then spent two decades as a nuclear security officer at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Lusby. He also worked for a time as a bailiff in the St. Mary’s County courts.
Somerville is survived by his wife of 59 years, Delores; sons Joseph Lee Somerville Jr., Wayne Darrell Somerville, Kevin Darryl Somerville, Rodney Wendell Somerville and daughter Terry Cutchember.
Two of Somerville’s sons followed him into law enforcement: Kevin Somerville served with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for 25 years and ran for sheriff in the 2006 Democratic primary. Joseph Lee Somerville Jr. has been with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office for a quarter century and is a corporal.