The life of Mt. Airy's Dorothy Cousins was a series of 'firsts'


Dorothy F. Cousins, a pioneer whose life encompassed a series of “firsts” in the Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney's Office, died Feb. 29 of lung disease at her home in Mt. Airy. She was 93.

Cousins served as a staff inspector, district commander and captain in the Philadelphia Police Department; chief of county detectives for the District Attorney’s Office and director of security for the Philadelphia Housing Authority. In the early 1980s, Cousins became a staff inspector, thus then becoming the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Police Department. 

She was one of the first women to be admitted to the Police Academy in the mid-1950s and was among very few Black women when she joined the department in 1955. She later became the first Black female captain of the Juvenile Aid Division in 1979, the first female district commander in 1980, the first female staff inspector in 1982, the first female chief of county detectives in 1983 and director of security for the Philadelphia Housing Authority in 1987. She retired in 1990.

“She inspired so many people and cared so much about other people,” said her daughter, Pat Smith, who retired from the Philadelphia Housing Authority and now works for Weichert Realtors in Erdenheim. 

Cousins’ older brother William, who was a military pilot during World War II, inspired her with his heroism to pursue her own career in public service and law enforcement, Smith said.

“He was one of very few Blacks at Central High School, and my mom wore his Tuskegee Airman wings to Girls High School,” Smith said. “At that time, Girls High was mostly white, and some girls would ask her why she was wearing the wings. She would say her brother had been a pilot in World War II.”

Many of the girls, Smith said, could not believe that there were Black pilots in the war.

“Of course, now we all know about the Tuskegee Airmen, but they were largely unknown at that time,” said Smith. 

Cousins was also inspired by her best friend, Barbara Clementine Harris, who served as a priest at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. Harris, who died in 2020, was the first woman consecrated a bishop in the Anglican Communion in 1989.

Cousins joined St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Germantown at age 15, which merged with St. Luke's in the 1960s. She was active in the parish for the rest of her life. She served as a member of the church’s vestry for several years, and was president of the Young Adult Fellowship there.

“After a while,” Smith said, “it just became the Adult Fellowship because the members were not so young anymore.”

Joy Kelly, one of Cousins' two granddaughters, told the Local that her grandmother was always “such a classy lady.”

“It was important to her to see the world,” Kelly said, “and she instilled that in all of us as well. I have many fond memories of traveling with her and her best friends and my mom. They always had funny stories of their past to share. 

She also credits her grandmother for giving her the confidence not to hold herself back.

“I never felt like I had limits as a Black girl from the city,” Kelly said. “I always knew that if Grandma could do what she accomplished in life during the time that she did, then I could also do anything that I set my mind to.”

Lisa Smith, another granddaughter, said that Cousins was one of the nicest “but no-nonsense people” you could ever meet.

“She showed me that you have to hold on to family and that real friends are family as well,” Smith said. “As a kid, I never understood how important and amazing she was because she never talked about her job or the things she had to deal with during that time period. I can’t say enough about how much I admire her and how proud I am to call her my grandma.”

Dorothy's parents moved here from Virginia in the 1920s as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North after World War I. Her parents had two children who died in infancy and three others, including Dorothy, who were born here.

Cousins graduated from Philadelphia High School For Girls in 1948. She gave birth to Pat at 19, and not being able to afford college courses, she worked as a secretary at Sears Roebuck and Co. and then at the Philadelphia Navy Yard before joining the police force.

In 1983, when Cousins was named chief of county detectives, then-District Attorney Ed Rendell (later Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor) said she was “not just the best woman available for the position, but she was simply the best law enforcement officer” with a “brilliant record of achievement and leadership.”

After retirement, Cousins worked on the Police Advisory Board and volunteered with the NAACP, Northwest Victims Services, Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, The Red Hats, Chums Inc., a fraternal and service organization, and other civic and nonprofit organizations.

Cousins is survived by her daughter and two granddaughters, three great-granddaughters and other relatives. Four brothers and three sisters died earlier.

Services with the family will be held Saturday, March 23, 10 a.m., at St Luke’s Episcopal Church, 5421 Germantown Ave.

Donations in Cousins' name may be made to the Scholarship Fund of the Tuskegee Airmen Greater Philadelphia chapter, Box 18966, Philadelphia, PA. 19119. Len Lear can be reached at