by J. R. de Szigethy
In the Spring of 1907, Harlem's Bishop Reverdy Ransome of the African Methodist Episcopal Church began to organize a coalition of leaders of the Harlem community that would demand that the NYPD hire African Americans as police officers. A large rally was organized outside City Hall, but then-Mayor John Purroy refused to meet with Bishop Ransome and his community leaders. The Bishop refused to give up in his quest and after four years of increasing public activism and pressure, the NYPD hired it's first Black officer; Samuel Jesse Battle of West 138th Street. Officer Battle was assigned to the West 68th Street station-house and his first two years on the job were unimaginably tough; his fellow White patrolmen had conspired to cruelly give Battle the 'silent treatment.' For over two years, Officer Battle came and went to work without any of his colleagues saying so much as "hello!"
Eventually, word leaked to the Media about this 'silent treatment' and newspaper reporters pounced on Battle, seeking his response. Battle refused to acknowledge what was going on, nor say anything negative about his co-workers on the force. Samuel Battle did not invent the "Blue Wall of Silence," but he was savvy enough to recognize he could only break the color barrier of the NYPD by playing by the rules that had been in place long before he arrived on the scene.
One night shortly thereafter, according to James I. Alexander, author of the historical tome BLUE COAT, BLACK SKIN, Battle slipped into the all-White barracks of the station-house, hoping to get some much needed sleep, believing that all the other Patrolmen would be asleep also, and thus not notice his presence. Battle overheard some Officers talking about his refusal to criticize with the Press the very cops who had treated him cruelly. A remorseful cop was heard to say: "I'm sorry we've treated Battle like this. At first, I thought he was going to be a rat. But he hasn't said a word, he hasn't made a complaint. He attends to his own business. I tell you, he's a hell of a good fellow!"
The 'silent treatment' against Battle would continue for some time, but Battle now knew that many of those who were silent were silently supportive of him. For the courageous cop who had dared to break the NYPD's color barrier, such knowledge made all the difference. Officer Battle also began to win the support and confidence of the members of the Harlem community, where, each year, he conducted a fund-raising campaign to provide a free Thanksgiving Day turkey dinner to one thousand underprivileged children.
With the growing support of his fellow cops and members of the Black community, Battle next decided to break yet another barrier, and in 1919 took steps to study for the exam necessary for his promotion to the rank of Sergeant. Officer Battle applied to the Delehanty School for such tutoring, an all-White establishment, the admission requirements of which dictated that Battle receive the approval of the students of the school in order to enroll. In seemed unlikely that the students would vote to allow a Negro into their school, but before the vote was taken, Fate intervened. A riot broke out in Harlem, during which a young Black man was shot and killed by a White cop. A group of rioters then closed in on the cop, threatening to lynch him at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. At the last possible moment, Officer Battle arrived, fighting his way through the crowd as perhaps only he could to rescue the endangered cop. A few days later, Officer Battle was unanimously voted into the Delehanty School.
Patience was among Officer Battle's better virtues, as he passed the test for promotion to Sergeant the next year, but was denied the promotion for the next six years. It would take the Administration of Mayor Jimmy Walker and his Police Commissioner before the veteran cop would get his promotion. Eight years later Sergeant Battle was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, and seven years later Battle was promoted to the rank of Parole Commissioner. Commissioner Battle retired in 1951 and continued his work with the Harlem branch of the Young Men's Christian Association, the National Urban League, and the NAACP. Officer Samuel Battle died in 1966 at age 83.
INEQUALITY IN EMPLOYMENT, EQUALITY IN SACRIFICE
Two years after Officer Battle joined New York's Finest, Robert H. Holmes became a Patrolman for the 38th Precinct on West 135th Street in Harlem. Four years later, Officer Holmes encountered a burglar on West 139th Street, and a foot chase ensued. The burglar then turned and shot Holmes twice in the face. Officer Holmes died later that morning at Harlem Hospital, becoming the first African American NYPD cop to give his life for New York City. At Officer Holmes' funeral, 20,000 people lined the streets of Harlem to mourn their martyred hero.
The legends of Officers Battle and Holmes served as an inspiration to members of the Black community to join the NYPD. One such young man who answered the call was Benjamin Wallace, who gained an appointment to the NYPD in 1928. Wallace quickly emerged as a leading figure in the Harlem community, but in 1946, Wallace encountered a career criminal, Raymond Griffiths, in a bar on Lenox Avenue. Griffiths pulled a gun and fired three times at Officer Wallace, who, despite being hit by each bullet, was able to return fire. Griffiths died instantly but Officer Wallace valiantly fought for his life as the Harlem community rallied to his support. After six days, Officer Wallace finally succumbed, and once again, thousands of African Americans lined the streets of Harlem for the funeral of one of their own fallen role models.
THE EMERGENCE OF THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN LAW ENFORCEMENT COMMUNITY
Three years after the murder of Officer Wallace, an association of Black police Officers called The Guardians Association applied to the Police Commissioner for formal recognition. After having been ignored for years, the Administration of Mayor William O'Dwyer and Police Commissioner William O'Brien finally granted official recognition to this organization. By this time in the late 1940s, the number of Black NYPD cops only numbered less than 400 of the total force, but those Black cops had attained a disproportionate level of influence throughout the communities of New York due to their exceptional moral character. The sad reality of the situation was that Blacks in law enforcement, as in almost all other professions, had to adhere to a higher standard of conduct than Caucasians, otherwise they would lose their jobs.
With the dawn of the decade of the 50s, Black cops continued to rise to new levels of power and influence. One such was Lt. Charles Jones, who in 1951 became the first African American NYPD cop to lead a Precinct Detective Squad, the 28th on 123rd Street in Harlem. Also that year, William Rowe was elevated to the position of 7th Deputy Commissioner. Two years later Dr. R. S. Wilkinson became the 2nd Black Police Surgeon, the first being Dr. Louis T. Wright, whom later became President of the Board of the NAACP.
The 1954 Supreme Court Decision that led to the desegregation of public schools across America would have a profound effect on professions, including that of Police Officers. The effect on the NYPD would be as such to accelerate the process, begun decades earlier by NYPD's African American pioneers, that would see enormous strides in the ensuing years in regards to the status of Black cops, not just among the NYPD, but throughout America.
During the late 50s and early 60s, the religious and community leaders of Harlem had once again taken the forefront in demanding yet more advances for Blacks amongst the ranks of the NYPD. In 1964 Captain Lloyd Sealy became the first Black Officer to become Commanding Officer of an NYPD station-house, the 28th Precinct in Harlem. Sealy was joined a year later when Captain Eldridge Waith took over command of the 32nd Precinct. Such advances further encouraged African Americans to join the forces of America's largest, and, some would say, best, police force.
By the early 70s there were over 2,000 Blacks amongst the ranks of the NYPD. Then came some unexpected setbacks. The Administration of Mayor Abe Beame encountered a fiscal crisis that saw the lay-off of 19,000 city employees, 5,000 of whom were NYPD cops. 600 of these were Black and Hispanic cops, most new to the force. The tide of the integration of the NYPD had been cruelly turned. Contemporary with this event was the emergence of two scandals. The first involved unprecedented corruption amongst the NYPD, as exposed in the famous 'Knapp Commission.' The second involved a series of incidents, in which several Black youths, as well as Black cops, were shot by White police Officers. One result was that the Guardians Association voted unanimously to withdraw from the police officer's union, the Patrolman's Benevolent Association.
Says one decorated retired Detective from that era: "Race relations hit rock bottom. One of my fellow cops during that time volunteered to take on a Black cop as his partner. He (the White cop) was subjected to organized and systemic retaliation by racist white cops!"