New York needs more black police officers. This city will never be right until more blacks step up and put on the blue. Given the starting salary of $35,000 it’ll be a sacrifice but one that needs to happen. Blacks make up 27 percent of this city’s population yet they are barely 10 percent of NYPD.
Men of color had to fight—and die—to get on the police force of this city. They knew, like the Irish before them, that if they were ever going to get a foothold in New York they had to become cops. That’s the first step in gaining power in this city, which is why NYPD is now thick with Latinos. They’re becoming the new Irish.
But blacks had an almost impossible task to even become cops. Samuel J. Battle is known as “The Father of All Black Police Officers.” He’s a legend in black law enforcement circles and like all legends you have to check the facts. He’s sometimes credited with being New York’s first black police officer. That’s incorrect. That honor went to Wiley G. Overton who became a police officer in Brooklyn in 1891.
Before Overton, the only job a black man could get with the police was as a doorman to the various precincts. When Overton put on the police uniform white officers went wild. They gave him the worst shifts and assignments and verbally abused him until he quit a year later. After Overton, two more blacks were hired by the Brooklyn police, which is how it remained until 1911.
Sam Battle was eight years old when Overton became a cop in 1891. He knew nothing of New York, as he was the seventh child of former slaves living down in Bern, North Carolina. Battle was an unusual Southern black youth because his childhood dream was to become a police officer—not much of a career option in North Carolina or New York.
At 20 he left North Carolina because he couldn’t find any work. Armed only with a grade school education and a strong work ethic he drifted to New York looking for the opportunity he had heard northern states might offer a Negro. He was convinced his lack of formal education wouldn’t hold him back as he was an avid reader.
Battle found a job in New York as a red cap humping luggage on trains in and out of Grand Central Station. He worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the pay was meager but to Battle a job was a job. This would be his first step. He fell in love and got married and then found an apartment in Harlem in 1905. Harlem had a real estate collapse that year and it welcomed blacks because there was a severe housing glut in New York City—the last time that would ever happen.
Battle did his red cap gig but kept inquiring about how one became a police officer. His fellow workers told him he was mad and that New York was not going to let a Negro walk around with a badge, a nightstick, and a gun.
In 1910, the city posted a test for the job of police officer and Battle took it—he placed 199 out of 638 applicants. Battle knew that since New York City incorporated in 1898 no black had been hired in the city as a cop. But he was determined and went for the physical. He was examined by three different NYPD doctors and they rejected him on the claim that he had a murmuring and leaky heart and wasn’t fit for the job. Battle argued that he’d done hard physical work 12 hours a day for years and his heart had never given him a problem.
He was ignored. The police brass used this dodge on Negro applicants for years and eventually they’d give up any hope of becoming a cop. But not Sam Battle. He made an appointment with one of Manhattan’s most prominent cardiologists—this sawbones was considered so good he got away with charging $150 for an examination. Battle was willing to pay that but when the doctor found out that Battle was a railroad red cap—the doctor had a fondness for the luggage draggers—he lowered his fee to $15 and his examination proved Battle’s heart to be fit. Battle took that report and some letters from some influential Harlem politicians and threatened NYPD with a court action.
Battle found the magic combination and on June 28, 1911 NYPD hired Samuel J. Battle and gave him badge #782. Battle was assigned to a Manhattan precinct on W. 68th St. He went to his first day knowing he wouldn’t get a warm welcome from the white cops. Battle walked into the precinct and said hello. A New York Times reporter heard a white cop answer, “Don’t he realize policing in New York is a white man’s job? Ah, don’t worry. He won’t last.”
For weeks Battle received the silent treatment. In 1911 cops pulled long shifts and were expected to sleep at the precinct in case trouble arose at night. Battle never bothered picking out a bed. He figured if his fellow cops wouldn’t talk with him they wouldn’t want him sleeping near them. He’d grab a blanket and sit in a chair reading books by Hawthorne. The white cops perusing their Police Gazette magazine thought his reading choices were uppity for a cop—never mind a black one.
Battle had it hard early on. He caught it from all sides. When he’d arrest a white criminal they’d yell who was this dinge, this spook to be arresting a white man. When Battle bagged black criminals they’d laugh and say, “Take off your black mask so we can see your white face.”
He remained a steady, if lonely, centurion. Newspaper reporters got a whiff of the foul treatment Battle was receiving from his fellow cops. When the reporters questioned Battle he told them he was treated fairly and had nothing else to say on the matter.
His honoring the Blue Wall of Silence earned him respect with the white cops and they started to treat him better. On Election Day of 1913 Battle had pulled a 24-hour shift and snuck up into the bunkroom for the first time. No one saw him as he ducked under the covers. Before he drifted off to sleep he heard a few white cops talking about what a good guy he was and weren’t they a bunch of heels for freezing him out.
Battle wanted to be closer to home so he got a transfer to the 32 Pct on W. 135thSt.—three blocks from his house. He teamed up with another black cop hired in 1913, Robert Holmes.
Holmes and Battle became minor Harlem celebrities. When they were assigned to direct traffic tour buses from midtown people would come up to gawk at the flamboyant men of color as they kept the traffic flowing. Battle and Holmes had a good four years together. On an August night in 1917 Holmes said goodnight to Battle at midnight as their shift ended. It would be their last words. Holmes walked home alone and saw a stick up man plying his trade. Holmes yelled, “Stop! Police!” The felon took off and Holmes chased him. The gunman ducked into a building on W. 138th St. and knocked out the hall light. As Holmes crashed through the lobby door into the darkness the man gunned him down. Robert Holmes would make history as the first black cop killed in the line of duty.
Battle was distraught over losing his friend. But he kept policing and soon newspapers were making a big deal out of him. They called him, “The Big Boy of Harlem.” The tabloid stories depicted him as an affable giant who was glad to take anything the white man was handing out. The stories always referenced his height and weight, his hands as big as hams, his deep rumbling voice, and his sweet and simple disposition.
Battle was much more complicated than those hacks could imagine. He knew he was a Negro doing a white man’s job in a time when integration wasn’t even a viable option. He kept his mouth shut while he was a cop but once he retired he made speeches all over New York that the government and media were painting Negro neighborhoods with labels as “bad” and “dangerous” and those communities were forgotten. His take on juvenile delinquency was that if not enough schooling and social services were offered to poor kids a slew of lifetime criminals would be bred.
But back in 1919 Battle had a wife and three young kids and needed to make more money. The NYPD Sergeant exam was coming up so Battle applied to the Delehanty School to prepare for the exam. The school leaders—former cops—told him that since he was a Negro a secret vote would have to be taken among the other students to see if they would go to class with Battle.
Three days later the Straw Hat riots broke out in Harlem. A white cop had gunned down a young Negro and a crowd had the cop cornered yelling that they should lynch him. Battle broke through the mob of straw hat men and pulled the white cop to safety. The Delehanty students voted unanimously to let Battle take the class.
He did well on the Sergeant test—enough to get the promotion—but Commissioner Enright refused to let a Negro become a supervisor. Battle had to wait six years for a new commissioner to be hired before he became NYPD’s first black sergeant.
Harlem was in its glory now that they had a black cop who was a supervisor. At churches Battle gave inspiring speeches, “Make your own opportunities. When you see them take hold of them and never give up.”
When Harlem mothers would ask him for advice on their wayward sons Battle would tell them, “Make sure you hit them in the rear with a hair brush.”
Every Thanksgiving in Harlem he led a charity drive so poor kids would get a good feed and a show afterwards.
In 1935 Battle was promoted to Lieutenant—which made him NYPD’s first black LT. During a March 1935 Harlem riot Battle once again pulled some white cops out of the fire. But this riot set off a mayoral investigation of police brutality during the riot. Battle was accused of harassment and false arrest of a Harlem activist. No charges were filed but Battle was booed by during an open committee hearing and called a stool pigeon.
As Battle thought about retiring from NYPD newspapers wrote many stories on how many blacks were now cops. In 1941 there were 147 black cops and Battle knew that was a small number given how hard he and others had fought. Battle beat the bushes to get blacks in and the 1942 Police Academy Class had 20 black graduates—the highest number ever.
When Lou Gehrig died in June of 1941 Mayor LaGuardia had to fill the former Yankee’s job as a commissioner on the Municipal Parole Board. LaGuardia wanted someone who could help the people in Harlem and he knew Battle was the only man for the job. LaGuardia bragged that Battle, “…knew every child in Harlem from the time they were born.”
Battle hardly ever missed a day of work for over 40 years and rarely heard a cheer. When he was offered the post he jumped at it. He’d done his 30 years as a cop and the title of “The Father of all Negro Policeman” wasn’t as good to him as the two grand raise the Mayor offered. Battle spent 10 years on the Parole Commission and did what he could to get blacks a fair shake. He retired in 1951 and stayed active in the Harlem community working for the NAACP.
When he died in 1966 over 600 people attended his funeral in Harlem. One of them was NYPD’s first black Assistant Chief Inspector, Lloyd G. Sealy, a man who gradated from that 1942 class Battle had fought so hard for blacks to join.
Battle was 83 when he died in his sleep of natural causes. In all of the lengthy obituaries on him there was not one mention of a murmuring or leaky heart. But his heart in 2006 might be broken if he knew how little of his landsman carried on his tradition.