His racist colleagues were as dangerous as the criminals: Meet New York's first black police officer

His life was threatened repeatedly and fellow officers were of little assistance. Samuel Battle fought on anyway

Published July 3, 2015 3:00PM (EDT)

Lt. Samuel Battle gets a kiss from his granddaughter Yvonne, at City Hall in New York, Sept. 4, 1941.      (AP)
Lt. Samuel Battle gets a kiss from his granddaughter Yvonne, at City Hall in New York, Sept. 4, 1941. (AP)

Excerpted from "One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line"in New York"

On December 27, 1911, Samuel Battle rose from probationary recruit to full-fledged police officer. The newspapers took stock of the historic event, with the Times reporting: “Six months ago men thought that Battle would be hazed into resigning, or at least into asking for transfer. Now they know he isn’t that sort and he has made himself respected.” But, the paper also stated: “The ‘silence’ that began when Battle entered the Precinct last July is as deep as ever today, not because Battle is a Negro—although that was the reason at first—but because every white policeman is now afraid of what would be said to and about him if he made any attempt to bring the ‘silence’ to an end.”

The New York Sun offered an unnamed officer’s words about Battle as typical:

He has never said anything uncivil and he does more than his share of the work. For instance, one day there was a mess of a grocery cart and an automobile on Central Park West. There were three prisoners and all I could tend to under the circumstances were two. Along comes Battle on his way to the stationhouse. Says he: “Want me to take one of them in?” Breakin’ my rule about not speakin’ to him I says: “I certainly would be obliged.” So he takes the prisoner to the house as cheerful as you please; and if you know how the ordinary policeman hates to do anybody else’s work, you know what that means. But as for sayin’ “Howdydo” to Battle in the station house—not me.

The Sun reported that, at the moment, Battle was reading a work by Winston Churchill, had just finished Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and that he also favored best-selling author Marie Corelli, whose Thelma was a love story set in Norway. The paper noted that Battle had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but that he felt it was more important to understand American history about which, the Sun concluded, “his memory is accurate.”

Never was Battle more alone, and never was he more open to scrutiny by internal affairs shoo-flies who lurked in the dark than when standing fixed post from midnight to morning. Even Inspector Max Schmittberger—the feared Schmittberger—came by personally to check. Once as corrupt as a cop could be, Schmittberger had confessed his crimes before a state senate investigating committee, emerged a hero, and become the scourge of rule breakers. Battle withstood his spying, as well as the unforgiving gaze of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, whose windows overlooked Riverside Drive and Eighty-Sixth Street. “We used to look up at Mr. Hearst—he would come and look down on the policemen, and we were afraid not to be there,” Battle remembered.

Decades later, putting pencil to paper in the great old townhouse, he revealed the depths of the torment that dogged him:

With my fellow officers it was a sin to be a Negro, hence the fight of survival and achievement was on. It seemed that all was against me, including God, in whom I had and have a great deal of faith and to whom I prayed fervently and religiously.

The weather was as much as five below or it seemed to me to be even more. I received supervision early and often, but I prayed and carried on, was never given any of the preferred assignments and didn’t ask for them.

I had prescribed my medicine and I took it like a brave soldier. Through these my hardest years I went with the prayers of my faithful and devoted mother and wife. Without these I could not have made it alone.

On Sunday afternoons, Battle became a regular at meetings of the Equity Congress in the largest hall of J. C. Thomas’s funeral home. There he associated with the leading figures of the Harlem that was coming to life, activists like Reverdy Ransom, Timothy Thomas Fortune, J. Frank Wheaton, and, when he was not on a stage tour, Bert Williams.

They kept abreast of Battle’s progress, while trying to recruit young black men to join him on the force, as well as to find anyone brave enough to try for the fire department. The Equity Congress was also fully engaged in a drive to establish a New York National Guard unit for blacks. This was a long-held dream of men who believed that, by serving in the US military, blacks would prove that they had equal right to the full benefits of American citizenship. As early as 1898, in the run-up to the Spanish-American War, Fortune and Reverend Alexander Walters had pressed New York’s governor for permission to raise a regiment. Now, in 1911, Equity Congress members pursued two strategies for creating a unit open to blacks.

They enlisted an assemblyman who represented the changing Harlem to introduce and, hopefully, push through authorizing legislation; and they named lawyer Charles W. Fillmore to lead what was known as a provisional regiment, an unofficial company of volunteers who would apply for mustering into service. Fillmore was a rare example of an African American who had led black troops, the Ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry Battalion. Now he took lonely command of a unit that lacked for everything—including men. The Equity Congress began calling on African Americans to enlist as a way of proving loyalty to a country that would surely respond with respect. The renowned dancer and entertainer Bert Williams gave star power to the recruitment drive.

By Lincoln’s birthday the following year, Fillmore had a large enough troop to parade in whipping snow from Columbus Circle to the Great Emancipator’s monument in Union Square for a wreath laying. The display was meant to demonstrate that New York’s African Americans were ready to uphold the tradition of the four black regiments that had emerged from Union troops to become the Buffalo Soldiers and that had fought with distinction in the Spanish- American War.

Battle could do little more than wish his friends well. Although many police officers were tied to Tammany Hall, the department barred cops from engaging in political advocacy. There was little doubt that Battle would suffer severe repercussions if he stepped to the fore in seeking a regiment. More, he had his hands full coping both with the rough edges of life in Harlem and on the police force.

On the streets, there was constant danger of racial violence. In one episode in the fall of 1911, a black man accidentally bumped into a white man, provoking whites to pursue him in growing numbers. The black man fi red a revolver without hitting anyone and attempted to run.

“Kill the n*****. He’s got a gun. Lynch him,” the mob yelled.

After running the man to ground, whites kicked their quarry in the head and face until two cops with guns drawn fought through the melee to save him.

At work, the muscle of onetime bullyboy Battle proved indispensable. The law was ruggedly enforced. A bit of clubbing or a liberal pummeling saved the trouble of a court appearance and was surely more effective as a deterring punishment. As Battle explained: “I gradually but regrettably came to believe, along with the other officers, that there was as much law at the end of a nightstick as there was on the statute books.”

A man who knew how to handle himself was much valued in the NYPD, all the more so if he also had the courage of his physique. Battle was bigger, stronger, and more athletic than any man in the precinct, and he had honed his fighting skills in the recreational boxing ring. Yet he took what his fellow cops dished out with outward stoicism, never so much as raising his voice or responding with profanity.

And then one day Battle had had enough. As he approached the stationhouse on West Sixty-Eighth Street, white cops who were hanging about uttered the word “n***r” within his hearing one too many times. His patience now gone, Battle delivered a challenge: if they wanted to fight, he would take them on, one or all.

“Any of you men, any man here, or any series of you here, that has anything against me, leave your guns, your billies and your blackjacks upstairs,” Battle declared. “I’m going down to the cellar, and I won’t have anything but my fists. Come down one by one. If you’re not able to go back up, after a certain length of time send another one down. Anything that you have against me, take it out on my black behind.”

Battle descended the stairs in front of every available eye, ready for anyone who had the bravery to follow him. None did, and Battle took significant ground in establishing that his stationhouse mates would afford him a minimum of dignity.

Similarly, Battle combined size and strength with courage to command respect in the line of duty. Given the opportunity, he also evened the score of black and white cracked skulls. As transcribed and polished by Hughes, Battle recalled:

One night when I was sleeping in the flag loft, about two a.m., the call came to go post haste to the aid of the patrolmen of the San Juan Hill district. Since it took some time to hitch up the horse-drawn patrol wagons, (“Black Marias” as they were called) we started out from West 68th Street on foot on the double.

As we passed the firehouse on Amsterdam Avenue, one of the firemen yelled, “There go the reserves—Battle in the lead.” I outran the others. We beat the patrol wagons to the scene of the riots. This was my first emergency call, and I was anxious for action.

When we got to the scene of the fighting in the streets, fists were flying, derbies were being smashed, and missiles flying from roof-tops. One man had already been killed and a number injured. The area was in turmoil. Our superior officers immediately gave orders to use our nightsticks to clear the streets, so we swung into the fray.

I was, of course, the only Negro, among the police, therefore doubly open to attack from the angered whites in the mob. The Negro rioters were in the minority. Nevertheless, my fellow policemen managed to club down two or three Negroes for every white. Therefore, to even things up, I began to club down the whites.

When things had finally quieted, I was assigned to the corner of West 62nd and Amsterdam, with orders to allow no one to loiter on the sidewalks. Just before daybreak four young white hoodlums stopped at the corner and refused to move.

“Get along,” I said.

They didn’t budge. When I repeated my order to move on, one of them made a racially profane insulting remark to me. I placed them under arrest. They resisted, so physically I was forced to tackle all four. I subdued them before assistance arrived. When help from other officers did come, I refused it and held all four of my prisoners myself until the Black Maria took them away, which gave saloon commentators material for conversation for the rest of the week. This conflict established my ability to hold my own in the district and from then on I was respected.

One night I was assigned to do a special post in Hell’s Kitchen where people often seemed to enjoy fighting. But the saloonkeepers and businessmen did not enjoy having their establishments broken up. Just before midnight I was standing in front of a saloon at 52nd Street and 10th Avenue when one of the habitués came out and said to me, “Officer, this is a bad place to stand. You know ‘Paddy, the Priest’ was killed right on this spot.” “Paddy, the Priest” had been a well-known gangster. I replied, “That is just why I am standing here, sir, so if anything happens, I will be in the right place.”

Hardly five minutes passed before a free-for-all broke out in a bar just down the block toward 9th Avenue. I went in with my nightstick swinging. In a short time order was restored. Peace reigned and nobody lifted a hand against me, so I was not compelled to make any arrests. By this time I had become well known in the area. Sometimes I needed only to walk into a bar and the fighting would stop.

Eventually, two officers broke the wall of silence.

Jimmy Garvey had joined the force after Battle, so he had not participated in the conspiracy of silence. Still, it took spine for a lone Irish Catholic to stand apart from peers who were so closely knit by nationality and faith that it was accepted practice for a man to skip out while on duty to attend mass. Garvey spoke openly to Battle, man-to-man in a budding friendship, as he proved himself to be a young cop’s cop, eager for any duty.

Abraham Stewart was a sergeant who happened to be Jewish. He asked Battle’s permission to share the flag loft in order to better prepare for the lieutenant’s exam. “I know it’ll be quiet, where you are,” Stewart explained.

“You don’t have to ask me, you’re a sergeant, but I’m glad to have you, anyway,” Battle responded. “Each time that we afterwards found ourselves together we talked. He was a friendly fellow and sometimes we checked each other in our studies. Stewart made the top of the list in the lieutenants’ tests.”

With the exception of Garvey and Stewart, the wall of silence remained largely intact when Battle was detailed to election night duty in a precinct headquartered on Manhattan’s East Side. After trying to pass the night reading in a chair rather than enter a second-floor bunkroom, he climbed the stairs in the grip of exhaustion. The room was dark. No one could see who he was. He crawled into an empty bunk and heard the conversation turn “to that colored cop.”

Surprising Battle, one man said, “I understand he’s a pretty good guy.”

“Battle’s OK,” a cop from his precinct answered, further surprising Battle.

He lay without speaking while the officer noted that Battle had never complained and always did more than his share of the work. The officer also said that some of the precinct’s cops were starting to regret his silencing.

“I thought, these boys haven’t got such a bad heart after all; they’re just a little weak-kneed, that’s all,” Battle concluded with great generosity.

Excerpted from "One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line"in New York" by Arthur Browne (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

By Arthur Browne

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