On June 28, 1911, Samuel Jesse Battle, badge number 782, became the first black policeman in the NYPD. On that day, Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo told him, “You will have some difficulties, but I know you will overcome them.” Thus began Battle’s four decadelong career. Along the way Battle pushed through the ranks of the NYPD, navigated the murky waters of Tammany Hall politics, and became a founding citizen of black Harlem. Battle also pushed for equality in all of the city’s civil services, including mentoring Wesley Williams, the first black fire fighter in the New York Fire Department.
Battle’s career was never easy. He faced discrimination and threats even before taking the civil service exam, and Battle’s first day at the Twenty-Eighth Precinct was no different. He was greeted with silence, disdain, and a cot in the precinct’s flag storage loft instead of the dormitory. Years later Battle would recount his feelings to Langston Hughes, his autobiographer for a time, about enduring such abuse.
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…My name had been passed over repeatedly. 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. Native-born and foreign-born whites on the police force all united in looking past me as though I were not a human being. In the loft in the dark, with the Stars and Stripes, I wondered! Why?
One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York is available in the Memorial Fund Gift Shop.