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New York City entered the 20th century with a police force of 7,500 men, none of whom were African-American. Someone had to be the first
Young Sam Battle had always dreamed of New York. He would imagine mighty buildings while he scrubbed the pine-board floors of his family’s home. He would look at the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad that came through his town, New Bern, North Carolina, and see visions of faraway trains that carried crowds of people on overhead tracks.
Two shining figures had brought on his yearning—William and Killis Delamar, visiting from cosmopolitan Brooklyn. Battle knew them as his mother’s brothers, although they were likely her cousins. In the 1890s, relatively few Southern blacks had joined America’s Great Migration, and a still smaller number had made it as good as the Delamars had. They operated horse-drawn trucking businesses, and Battle remembered them as proud, good-looking men who owned “several enormous vans and a number of big beautiful horses” and served “the best families in Brooklyn.”
Over his mother’s heaping meals, the Delamars told of wonders—the Brooklyn Bridge, skyscrapers with elevators, and streets with electric lights. To Battle, New York became “the center of all the glory, all the wealth, and all the freedom of the world,” as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar would describe the magnetism of the city.
The attraction was all the stronger because a tide of oppression was sweeping the South as the 20th century drew near. The U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates in 1896 by upholding, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the constitutionality of providing separate and purportedly equal accommodations to blacks. In North Carolina, severe economic dislocations intensified the ruling’s corrosive impacts. As plunging cotton prices drove white farmers toward poverty, Battle’s hometown newspaper, the New Bern Journal, called in 1898 for renouncing “negro supremacy, indecency, menace to property, destruction of social law and order.” An armed white paramilitary rode the countryside to make its supremacist preferences plain; dressed in crimson, they became known as the Red Shirts.
That same year, Battle witnessed the appearance in New Bern of men unlike any he had ever seen: young black men wearing the uniform of the U.S. soldier and preparing for duty in the Spanish-American War. President McKinley had called for volunteers, and a soon-to-be ousted North Carolina governor enabled African-Americans to enlist in regiments attached to white militia. On leave, many of them traveled to New Bern—a majority black town—for recreation. To whites, they were arrogant armed men who personified a refusal to accept the lot assigned to blacks; to Battle, they embodied adventure. He dashed to the tracks to watch as they went off by train.
But he understood that he was not yet ready to follow them. To acquire some of the polish he admired in the Delamar brothers, Battle went to work for Major Graham Davies, whose family lived on grounds large enough for a mansion and a second house. He tended the lawns, gardens, and shrubbery; pumped drinking water from a well; and brought soft water for the laundry from a rain cistern. Indoors, he emptied chamber pots and fanned away flies by pulling a cord that waved paper strips over the dining table. Eventually he become one of the family’s mealtime waiters.
“There,” Battle said, “I learned how people of real culture and refinement behave, converse, and live.” He added, “My period of work with this family of the Old South was a happy one and it was with some regret that I left them.” In 1899, at the age of 16, “feeling myself a man,” Battle went north.
He traveled by boat, a ticket on an Old Dominion steamship being less expensive than going by train. The Old Dominion’s service to New York from Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia, was becoming a primary transportation for early black migrants on the Eastern Seaboard. In 1898, the year before Battle made the voyage, one New York man observed, “On every Old Dominion Steamship that docked there (were) from two to three hundred Negroes landed in New York.”
But, for blacks, New York was anything but the Promised Land. For decades after the Civil War, the number of African-Americans in the city had remained constantly small—clustered first in the notorious Five Points section of Lower Manhattan; then pushed north into Greenwich Village and then further north into a roughedged place on Manhattan’s West Side called the Tenderloin.
By modern standards, the Tenderloin was not a ghetto. The city’s black population—counted at 60,666 in the 1900 census, less than two percent of the total—lacked the heft to claim a large area. Instead, blacks lived scattered, on a block here and a block there.
As would long be the case, their buildings carried the highest rents and were the least maintained. The census put the number of working black men at 20,395, with well more than half holding jobs as servants, waiters, porters, or laborers. There were but 32 black doctors and 26 black lawyers.
Battle was a country teenager come North with wide eyes, navigating the hustle and muck of the streets, looking up at the train engines overhead belching smoke and showering sparks. Where the sun came into view, he saw a sky etched with cables strung helter-skelter to carry electricity every which way. Crossing Manhattan’s busiest north-south thoroughfare, he encountered the New York Police Department’s Broadway squad, the best the department had to offer. All the men were at least six feet one and resplendent in brassbuttoned uniforms.
Beyond Battle’s purview were darker truths—that the New York Police Department was infused with brutality, corruption, and racism. Its ranks, 7,500 strong, were filled largely by ill-educated Irishmen who were given to the liberal use of a club called the “locust,” so named for the close-grained wood from which it was hewn. They took orders from the bosses of Tammany Hall, the all-powerful Democratic Party machine. Many blurred the distinction between cop and criminal.
There wasn’t much call in New York for a partly educated adolescent, let alone one who was black. Battle fell back on the skills he had learned as a servant in the Davies household. He found a position as a houseboy or, more politely, as a houseman in the home of a retired Spanish banker and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Gelio Andreini, on West 75th Street, just feet from Central Park. His salary was 25 dollars a month plus meals. He remembered Mr. Andreini as “a fine, liberal man” and Mrs. Andreini as a “charitable church woman,” although she “was so exacting that she made her household staff work like slaves.”
Battle lived modestly in a three-dollar-a-month room on West 59th Street, not far from the location today of the 55-story Time Warner Center. It was north of the Tenderloin, on the edge of another area where blacks concentrated among larger numbers of whites. Stretching six or seven blocks above 59th Street, the neighborhood had strict racial divisions, blacks toward the bottom of a slope, whites toward the top. There was constant racial skirmishing, and the enclave came to be called San Juan Hill after the site in Cuba of Teddy Roosevelt’s Spanish-American War victory.
Battle’s landlord took a liking to him. He taught him to play the bridge-like card game whist and gave Battle a brush with greatness. Among the players who joined Battle at the card table was a curly-haired man with light cocoa skin—the great Arthur Schomburg.
A decade older than Battle and employed as a law firm clerk, Schomburg had already embarked on his life’s work of collecting the lost histories and overlooked accomplishments of people of color. Perseverance as a bibliophile would make him a seminal figure of modern African-American history and place his name, in 1940, on what would become the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Battle remembered that Schomburg “took special interest in me” at their twice-weekly card playing. Schomburg believed that blacks needed to stand on the same intellectual level as whites. He impressed upon Battle that learning was imperative. He stressed reading the newspapers—Timothy Thomas Fortune’s New York Age and the white newspapers such as the New York Times, New York Tribune, and New York Evening Post.
Seemingly wherever Battle went, he encountered African-Americans of accomplishment. The Reverend Alexander Walters occupied the pulpit of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Battle’s congregation, and was a seminal civil rights leader. He and the New York Age‘s Timothy Fortune published an open letter in 1889 calling for the National Afro-American League’s creation. The league petered out, but Walters successfully urged Fortune to revive it as the Afro-American Council after the Plessy decision in 1896. Walters served as president for most of the first decade of the 20th century.
African-American fraternal organizations were also blooming into a key source of social cohesion. Battle joined the most prominent, the Elks, or more precisely the black Elks. The long-established Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks had barred African-Americans, prompting two blacks in Cincinnati to form the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World. The New York courts enjoined the use of that name, but no matter. The group carried on, and Battle mixed with the many leading African-Americans who took part. In 1905, he was a grand marshal in Brooklyn.
Six years after Battle left home with dreams of succeeding like the Delamars, he stepped into adulthood under a wife’s grounding influence, marrying 16-year-old Florence Carrington, who had come to New York from Newport News, Virginia. A butler’s income had paid for freeform bachelorhood, but it would hardly support a wife and family. Casting about, Battle heard that blacks his age were pulling down good money as luggage porters at the Grand Central Depot. The jobs were hard to get, and he would have to see the headman, the fearsome Chief James Williams, son of a former slave, who oversaw more than 400 porters. Williams questioned Battle closely about everything he had done over the previous five years, then offered him a red cap.
The neighborhood around West 59th Street teemed with unemployed and underemployed men, women who went to work as domestics if they were lucky, and poorly clothed children, many of them ill-attended. On a single block just north of the Battle’s apartment, more than 6,000 people were counted as living in tenements described as “human hives.” The danger of white-on-black violence overshadowed the neighborhood—and the New York Police Department was the most feared threat.
Never did officers wield their nightsticks more vehemently than during the Siege of San Juan Hill. On a Friday evening in July 1905, about a month after Battle’s wedding, a white gang was taunting an elderly white peddler on the gang’s corner when a police roundsman ordered a black minister, who ran a nearby coal business, to go into his shop. The minister refused.
“You black———, get in there or I will knock your brains out,” the roundsman ordered, according to the detailed retelling in the Age. Inside the store, the roundsman hit the minister. The minister grabbed a gun from a drawer. Police beat the minister senseless. Black residents swarmed the cops when they carried the minister outside. Across Battle’s neighborhood, tensions ran high. The Age reported:
On Saturday Afro-Americans were bullied by the police. Respectable business citizens, if they stood for a minute, were told to get out of the way, and the first man arrested . . . was, according to his statement, beaten after being taken to the 68th Street station. Similar treatment was accorded to every prisoner that evening. On Sunday more needless arrests were made upon frivolous and concocted charges.
On Monday night, a police officer ordered men who were standing in front of a saloon three blocks from Battle’s apartment to get off the sidewalk and go inside. A brick thrown from a roof struck the officer’s head.
Dozens of African-Americans were hauled to the stationhouse, where, the Age reported, “they found prepared for them a modified form of the Indian torture called ‘running the gauntlet’.” One by one they were shoved into a darkened room in which “police officers with clubs proceeded to beat these upon the head and bodies until they were nearly dead.”
For weeks after the nightsticks swirled around Battle and Florence’s neighborhood, Timothy Fortune trained the Age‘s editorial firepower on police commissioner William McAdoo, whom, he said, had praised the police “in these ‘riots’.”
As 1905 closed, Fortune published an unsigned letter to the editor under a headline that exhorted, “Become Police and Firemen.” The writer detailed the required physical qualifications: Barred were obesity, “rupture in any form,” “fissures, fistulas, and external or internal piles,” varicose veins, color-blindness, and much more, including “very offensive breath.” It was mandatory that heart, brain, kidneys, and genitalia be in good working order.
The writer also warned—presciently, as Battle would discover—that an applicant might face medical sabotage after passing the written civil service test: “I am informed that it has been, and is now, the custom when Afro-Americans apply for examination for the examiners to fake up some technical physical defect and thereby reject them, while a white man in similar physical condition would be passed without question.”
There was no rush of volunteers.
Then, three years later, in 1908, horrific white-on-black racial violence erupted, the intensity of which was greater than anyone could remember. It took place in Springfield, Illinois, the city (population 47,000) that sent Abraham Lincoln to the White House and where the Great Emancipator was entombed. Under the watch of as many as 12,000 people, white rioters set a black neighborhood ablaze and cut firefighting hoses. Seven people died (two black, five white), more than 40 families lost homes, and many hundreds of blacks fled.
In reaction, journalist William English Walling wrote a magazine article headlined “Race War in the North.” He concluded with these words: “Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?”
At roughly this moment, three African-American men gathered with history-changing purpose in Doyle’s Saloon on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 136th Street.
J. Frank Wheaton—a friend of Battle’s from the Elks—had been the first African-American to graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School. He’d moved to New York in 1905, served as an assistant district attorney, and opened a law practice. Bert Williams, another Battle acquaintance, was half of the vaudeville team Williams and Walker that introduced New York to the two-stepping dance called the cakewalk. In 1902, Williams and Walker had made black theatrical history by opening a musical comedy in a Times Square theater. J. C. Thomas operated a funeral parlor for African-Americans in the Tenderloin; he was the dominant funeral director in the area. He’d scored a windfall when the Pennsylvania Railroad bought up his real estate investments for construction of a majestic Penn Station.
Wheaton, Williams, and Thomas each put a hundred dollars on the bar at Doyle’s Saloon as a contribution to forming the Equity Congress, an organization dedicated to seeking social equality in practical terms. The proprietor, Doyle, a neighborhood Irishman whose first name is lost to time, also kicked in a hundred dollars, earning a place as the Equity Congress’s fourth founding member. Whether Doyle acted out of principle or simply to buy goodwill among a growing black customer base will never be known.
The organization set two goals. The first was to force open to blacks those areas of the civil service that had been closed: the New York City police and fire departments. The second was to persuade New York’s legislature and governor to establish a black National Guard regiment that would give the state’s African-Americans entry into the U.S. military.
In the first week of 1909, another trio met to create a “powerful body of citizens”—suffragette Mary White Ovington, social worker Henry Moskowitz, and the socialist journalist Walling. They began by recruiting white progressives like themselves, including Oswald Garrison Villard, publisher of the New York Evening Post. And then they enlisted prominent blacks, including W. E. B. Du Bois, the intellectual spirit of the modern civil rights movement, and Battle’s pastor, Rev. Walters. On February 12, the group called on “all believers in democracy to join in a national conference for . . . the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.”
Now seen as the founding event of the NAACP, the appeal engendered fresh hope among African-Americans, not the least because of the commitment of whites to the cause.
“I did not know personally Oswald Garrison Villard, Mary White Ovington, or W. E. B. Du Bois, but I rejoiced in their courageous action,” Battle said later.
Conferences were held in New York in 1909 and 1910. Battle closely followed developments and joined the nascent association.
“I am a life member,” he said.
In the summer of 1909, Battle saw the drive for national activism merge with rising appeals to integrate the New York Police Department. Congregants packed the pews of Battle’s Mother AME Zion Church for an appearance by New York’s second-highest elected official. Standing in for a vacationing mayor, Board of Aldermen President Patrick McGowan announced that he supported opening the police force to African-Americans, “in certain sections,” as the Age paraphrased, to “end the clashes between the police and the blacks.”
Amid the surge of advocacy, Battle decided to be the one. He chose, however, to be just another applicant and not to stand out as the black man who was daring to try for the police department.
The test was competitive. Ranking toward the top on the hiring list would be crucial. Among the exam topics were the Penal Law, the Code of Criminal Courts Act, the Dance Hall Law, the Civil Rights Law, the Education Law, the General Business Law, general city ordinances, arithmetic, and expertise in getting around the city.
Would-be police officers typically took classes at the Delehanty Institute, a school that readied candidates for civil service tests. Battle found his way there, only to be barred from admission.
In an interview with the writer Langston Hughes, he related:
I bought a book, “How to Become a Patrolman,” purchased from “The Police Chronicle” for fifty cents. My new book indicated other volumes, lists and useful materials which I secured. I used every available moment of free time for study. I carried my books in my pocket while on duty at Grand Central and I spent most of my lunch hour concentrating on them. After I had swept up behind the horses at the cabstand and finished my other cleaning duties, I read while waiting trains. By the time I got home in the evenings it would often be after eight o’clock. As soon as supper was over, I would tackle my studies again. I sometimes fell asleep in my chair after a hard day’s work.
At the age of 26, Battle strode into the test center on the appointed day in 1910. He was alone among 637 white faces. They could not turn him away because blacks were entitled by law to sit for civil service tests. At home afterward, Battle told Florence that he seemed to know the material. They would have to wait to find out whether he had known enough. When the city published the results, Battle found his name at the 199th place—in the top third of the pack, easily high enough to be called for the mandatory physical.
As Battle’s name rose toward the top of the hiring list, he was called for the medical exam. Now there was no hiding his skin color. He was big and strong and black. And he was stoppable.
The police surgeon diagnosed Battle as suffering from a heart murmur, thus providing a pretext for disqualifying him. At first, the doctor’s findings mystified Battle. Having carried “tons of baggage miles per week,” he was sure he was fit. He was passed over once, and then twice on the list. A friend, Thomas Henry Peyton, warned him that a third rejection would doom his chances.
Peyton had a position in the lower ranks of the police department, doing what amounted to the work of a doorman. Battle recalled:
One day when I was working in Grand Central, [Peyton] came up to me and said, “Sam, do you know that your name is about to be dropped to the bottom of the list, of civil service? The police commissioner hasn’t appointed you.”
I said, “I didn’t know, I thought someday they might appoint me.”
He said, “No. Don’t allow your name to go to the bottom of the list. Go and ask for another examination, something of that kind. Do something about it.”
Thanks to Peyton, Battle realized that he needed help. One man came to mind: Frederick Randolph Moore, the editor since 1907 of the Age.
Moore summoned surprised black allies, to help apply pressure. Among them were Democrats (such as the leaders of Tammany Hall’s United Colored Democracy); and Republicans (including Charles Anderson, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in New York). Wheaton, Williams, and Thomas’s Equity Congress, by now a thriving organization, promised full support.
Together, Moore and Battle also approached Dr. E. P. Roberts, but the three men soon agreed that Roberts’s medical expertise would be meaningless because he was black. Regretfully but realistically, Roberts referred Battle to an eminent white physician, Dr. James Dowling. Battle recollected:
When Dr. Dowling finished with me he said, “You are the most perfect physical specimen I have ever examined.” I then asked him to check my heart again, because I had to prepare myself for strenuous work, and that was what had given me concern. He rechecked my heart. When he had finished this second examination, he said, “Your heart is in perfect shape. There is nothing wrong at all.”
Without informing him of the rejection by the police surgeons, I asked Dr. Dowling for a certificate as to my state of health, again stressing attention to my heart. He sat down and made out a complete report on me. As he was about to sign it, I requested him to put all of his full professional titles down behind his name. With a smile he did so, closing not only with Professor of Diagnosis and Consulting Surgeon, but President of Flower Hospital, one of the leading city hospitals of that day. . . .
That evening I took the certificate to Editor Fred Moore. He wrote a letter to Mayor Gaynor enclosing it.
The weeks dragged by without action. In February 1911, Moore wrote again to Mayor William Jay Gaynor, and this time Gaynor responded tersely: “I do not understand that the man you mention is in danger of discrimination whatever.”
Wheaton pressed police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, and the IRS’s Anderson also lobbied the mayor. Finally, after more than three months, the department summoned Battle for a second medical exam.
“A young white man in line just ahead of me fainted dead away as he stood before the doctor,” Battle remembered. “When my turn came I said pointedly, ‘I’m sure you will find nothing wrong with me, sir—but the color of my skin. No doubt, that young fellow who just fell out in a cold sweat on the floor will pass his examination—because he is white.'”
This time, the doctor said, “I don’t find anything wrong with you—or your heart.”
At last, Commissioner Waldo designated Battle a candidate for the New York Police Department.
“The next morning headlines announced my appointment,” Battle recalled. The Negro press acclaimed him “almost as much,” he said, as they had Jack Johnson when he “won the heavyweight championship.” At the age of 28, Battle had made history. He was Greater New York’s first black cop.
Mentioning Battle only offhandedly as “this colored man,” the IRS’s Anderson wrote to Booker T. Washington: “The Equity Congress and Frank Wheaton are claiming credit for the appointment. I have said nothing, but from the tenor of the Mayor’s letter, in which he asks me to ‘see that the appointee will be a credit to his race,’ it looks as though the Mayor felt that I had something to do with it.”
Battle’s backers moved on, and he was left to a solitary fight, as alone as if he were behind enemy lines.
Which he was.
Arthur Browne ’72 is the editorial page editor of the New York Daily News and a recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. This excerpt is drawn and adapted from his new book One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York (Beacon Press, 2015) and is reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
In succeeding chapters of One Righteous Man, Arthur Browne follows Samuel Battle’s career with the NYPD, including the two years at the start when he endured the silent treatment from fellow officers. Battle served in the partly black San Juan Hill neighborhood from 1911, before being assigned to Harlem in 1913.
In 1926 he made sergeant, and in 1935 he became a lieutenant—more firsts for a black man. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named him to the Parole Commission in 1941, to fill the seat of the late Lou Gehrig. He served 10 years before retiring.
Battle understood the historical import of his experiences. In 1949, he employed the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes to write his biography, and the two met for extensive interviews. The project didn’t attract a publisher, but former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt read the pages and wrote a heartfelt preface:
This is a record of a man’s life and as he tells it you not only see one life but you see the struggles and the victories and the defeats of a whole group of U.S. citizens. What courage it took, what remarkable stamina, to be the first Colored policeman in New York City: There were qualities of mind and heart and body that were purely personal but above everything else there was the realization that he was fighting not for himself alone but for his people.
Battle died in his Harlem home on August 7, 1966, at the age of 83, leaving his wife, Florence, a daughter and son, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.