The Untold Story of the First Black Police Officer
The New York Police Department’s First Black Police Officer
When we think of notable historical figures who were a part of the Civil Rights Movement, many of us think of people from the 1950's like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, or the Little Rock Nine. While their efforts were notable and they made a significant impact, they were not the first to break racial barriers and promote racial equality, nor will they be the last.
Who Was Samuel Jesse Battle?
One Black man who is not as well known for his work in promoting racial equality is Samuel Jesse Battle, the first African American cop in the New York City Police Departments’ integrated forces. In the second decade of the twentieth century, he chose to pursue a career in law enforcement, and on March 6th, 1911, became the first sworn Black officer in the NYPD. His journey included suffering a great deal of racism (from even his colleagues), but through continued perseverance and a commitment to both his duty and racial progress, he ultimately gained the respect of the community and the rank of Lieutenant.
Journey to Being Sworn In
Born to former slaves Thomas and Annie Battle on January 18, 1883, Samuel started breaking records the day he was born, being the largest baby born in North Carolina at 16 pounds. (He was later nicknamed “Big Sam” for his six-foot three height and weight at some 280 pounds) His interest in law enforcement began when he was a teenager, after he was reprimanded severely when he was caught stealing cash from his supervisor’s safe. His supervisor told him that he would end up in prison within a year’s time, but Battle took this moment to heart, his defiance changing his trajectory, and ultimately pushing him to work towards success.
After graduating from high school, Battle moved north to New York City where he took a job as a train porter and started studying for the NYPD civil service exam. He was initially rejected because of his race, (despite the force being technically ‘integrated’) and he quietly fought back. He was ultimately admitted to the training school, and after taking the exam, of 638 applicants, Battle ranked 119th, which qualified him to become a police officer – the first Black man to ever be in the NYPD’s integrated ranks.
First Days on the Job
After being sworn in, he describes the following scene:
“I went by the Grand Central Terminal, where I had worked as a [porter]… and I went in to see the stationmaster, and all the boys stopped carrying the bags. Things were all tied up for a while to see this first black policeman in Greater New York.”
He also saw a large crowd of white spectators outside his stationhouse, the 28th Precinct, who seemed to find it hard to believe that a Black man was actually wearing a police uniform. Unfortunately, their disbelief was only the beginning of the racism and discrimination that he would ultimately face.
On his first day on the job, Battle was surprised to find that he received the silent treatment from his white fellow police officers. In training school, the other applicants had been kind to him, but now that he was officially sworn in, he was largely ignored and forced to patrol on his own despite being a rookie. He was told to sleep in what was essentially the attic of the police precinct because no one wanted to sleep near him.
“Sometimes, lying on my cot on the top floor in the silence, I would wonder how it was that many of the patrolmen in my precinct who did not yet speak English well, had no such difficulties in getting on the police force as I, a Negro American, had experienced… All sorts of discouragements had been placed in my path. And now, after a long wait and a lot of stalling, I had finally been given a trial appointment to their ranks and these men would not speak to me.” – Samuel Battle
The racism he faced continued for several years, acts ranging from general slights to notes full of racially charged and threatening language (one with a hole in it the size of a bullet). He continued to be kind to the other officers and avoided making trouble because he knew that the double standard he faced meant he had to be twice as good as his white peers if he was going to stay an officer.
A Change for the Better
Things changed for Battle in 1919 when he saved a white officer’s life during a racial skirmish. His heroic actions earned him the respect of his fellow officers and carried him through several promotions in the years that followed. He became the first Black Sergeant in 1926, the first Black Lieutenant in 1935, and ultimately left the force in 1941 when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named him the first Black member of the New York City Parole Commission. Samuel ultimately retired in 1951 but remained active in community activities in the Harlem area until his death in 1966.
Though Samuel Battle is not a household name, his actions left a lasting impact on the law enforcement community in New York City and the United States as a whole. The son of former slaves in the South, Battle broke racial barriers for the Black community against all odds, and ultimately paved the way for many others to follow in his footsteps.