The First Black Policeman Remembers
Samuel J. Battle
I was appointed, and it's a matter of record, the first Negro to be appointed in Manhattan, and the first under the Greater New York Charter. Prior to that, there had been Negroes on the force in Brooklyn. That was June 28, 1911. That day I was appointed, there was no problem, excepting that as I 1eft headquarters the commissioner told me I was appointed and talked to me personally, and he said to me that he was proud to know that I was a New York City policeman. "You will have some difficulties but I know you will overcome them." When I left there, I went by the Grand Central Terminal, where I had worked as a Red Cap—I was a Red Cap as of then—and I went in to see the stationmaster, and all the boys, all the Red Caps, stopped carrying the bags. Things were all tied up for a while to see this first black policeman in Greater New York. I didn't have a uniform on then. That was the first day of my appointment. I still had to go to training school. You still wouldn't have your uniform till after your thirty days were up. You'd stay in your civilian clothes. But the word had spread around. People had known me at Grand Central for about seven years, when I left there. I was there then as an assistant chief of Red Caps, and probably would have been chief. The salary as a Red Cap was $32.10 a month, and I was saving $300 a month. I was making three or four hundred a month as a Red Cap. I knew everybody—the president, the governor, and all the society people. I went to training school, in civilian clothes; they were all rookies like myself. I didn't run into discrimination. But after the thirty-day training period, I was assigned to a precinct, and finally landed in West 68th Street, and things began to perk up. I thought I was going there and would be received like I had been at the training school, but no. Not one patrolman said hello to me. I got the silent treatment. My superior officers were extremely nice to me—big, thick Irishmen, they were supposed to be tough—but they were all very nice to me. Of course, I did my duty and I was careful. I tried to help other policemen, my brother officers, and be nice to them and not make any trouble. I was living then at 27 West 136th Street. You ask about Harlem in 1910. All of Eighth Avenue was Irish, and Seventh Avenue was a mixture of Irish and Jewish. One hundred and thirty-seventh Street to 140th Street, any place below 133rd St., was Irish, German, and Italian. One thing I shall never forget.
The Irish boys on Eighth Avenue wouldn't let the other races come on Eighth Avenue at all. It was forbidden ground to them.
Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd streets, c. 1915 © Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pa. Up here at 142nd Street and Ninth Avenue we had the Canary Island gang, composed of Irish. They were tough boys. Of course, after I became a policeman I didn't have any trouble with them, because we used to use our nightsticks. I used to like to fight, I was strong and healthy. During those early years, it was a transition period, whites to Negroes. There were houses where Italian, Jewish, and Irish lived, but they'd let colored people in if they paid more money. Still the places were deteriorating because they didn't make the money that they had been making. A lot of people got wealthy as a result. I saw that transition. The West 68th St. Precinct took in 59th to 86th streets, Central Park West to the River. That was the San Juan Hill area. Just west of Amsterdam Avenue was mostly Negro; east of Amsterdam Avenue was generally Irish. South of 65th Street it was a mixture, but generally Irish. The Negroes lived, as I say, on the west side and down the hill from Amsterdam Avenue. There is still a hill there now. When you get up on level ground, on the east side of Amsterdam Avenue, it's level ground. So San Juan Hill was named that in connection with a battle in the Spanish American War, so that when these Negroes came onto the west side they dubbed it San Juan Hill because they used to come up the hill after the whites. They had riots. Many riots. There were riots in 1911–12 when I was working there. I was on reserve, one particular night. We had wagons to carry us, to transport us to places when on reserve, but this was so nearby, I didn't wait. I dressed quickly and was running down Amsterdam Avenue. I was in training and a good runner, and going fast. When I passed the firehouse I heard a fireman say, "There goes Battle, he's in the lead!" I went on down, and we got there, with my squad. The whites and Negroes were battling. I saw the white cops beating up the colored people, and I thought, "Here's my chance to get even with them." I saw them whipping black heads, and I was whipping white heads. I'll never forget that. We quelled it, we didn't make many arrests, because in those days you didn't have to. Today you'd be forced to arrest a lot of people to prevent them from taking civil action. What was the cause? Just interracial conflicts. They'd sometimes start a fight over a crap game, or anything. Just some little thing like that. One will start a fight and then they'll all get together, and you have a riot as a result. The result was that this didn't happen any more. Then in 1913, when I was transferred to Harlem, I found that, of course, the white officers worked in an all-Negro neighborhood, practically, and they needed me as much as I needed them and sometimes more because some of them were on posts where there were all Negroes. Then, too, this story had gone out that "he's a decent fellow," and they began to treat me nicely and spoke to me and asked me to join their organizations and things of that kind.
Samuel J. Battle, the first African American police officer in the New York Police Department, was born January 16, 1883 in New Bern, North Carolina. At the time he was recorded as the largest baby born in North Carolina at 16 pounds. Battle later grew to be 6’3’’ and over 280 pounds. His father was a Methodist minister.
When Samuel Battle was teenager, he was caught stealing money from a safe. His boss, R.H. Smith, did not press charges because of his friendship with Battle’s father. However, Smith predicted Battle would be in prison within a year. Samuel Battle later said that he was determined to prove R.H. Smith wrong. He moved to Connecticut and then New York City in 1901, and worked as a houseboy and red cap at the Sagamore Hotel.
Battle decided to become a police officer since the job offered the stability he needed to support his young family. He was also influenced by his brother-in-law, Moses Cobb, who was a police officer for the city of Brooklyn before the merger of the city with New York City.
Although the City of Brooklyn had hired Cobb and other African American police officers prior to Battle’s appointment, Samuel Battle became the first African American to be appointed after the police forces merged in 1898. He ranked 119th out of 638 on his police test and officially joined the force June 28, 1911 at the age of 28. Battle was initially assigned to the San Juan Hill neighborhood (now the Lincoln Center area) which was the heart of Black New York then. With the great migration of the World War I period, he was reassigned to Harlem which quickly became the center of African American life in the city. Battle became the first black sergeant in 1926, the first black lieutenant in 1935, and the first black parole commissioner in 1941.
Battle endured discrimination and mistreatment while on the force from white civilians who traveled to Harlem to watch him work, as well as from the other white officers who refused to speak to him. Once he found a note on his bunk filled with racially charged and threatening language that had a hole the size of a bullet. However, some of the officers soon realized that Battle would be an asset in patrolling the Harlem community. In 1943 during the Harlem Riot, Battle was called by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to help defuse tensions in the community.
Samuel Battle retired from the New York City Police Force in 1951 at 68. He was the highest-ranking African American on the force at that time. He died in New York City on August 7, 1966 at the age of 83.
In 2009, the corner of West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in New York was renamed Samuel J. Battle Plaza in honor of his achievements. That street corner marked the location where Battle saved a white officer’s life during a racial skirmish in 1919.
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