Veteran journalist uncovers full story of NYPD’s first African-American cop

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appoints Lt. Samuel J. Battle as member of the city's parole commission. (via Beacon Press)

He broke the New York Police Department’s color barrier 36 years before Jackie Robinson put on a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, but most people don’t even know his name.

Samuel J. Battle paved the way for countless African-Americans to protect and serve New York. Over the years, he became the first black person to hold many positions within the department: officer, sergeant, lieutenant and parole commissioner.

Samuel Jesse Battle was the first black police officer in the city of New York. (Photo: The New York City Police Museum)

“As an American hero, he showed what one person can do with courage and moral determination,” veteran New York City newspaperman Arthur Browne said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Browne’s new book, “One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York,” which makes the case for Battle’s place among the pantheon of great American heroes, hits shelves amid an ongoing national conversation about tension between police departments and minority communities.

In the past year, the Justice Department launched investigations into the police departments in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Baltimore after alleged cases of excessive force in which white police were involved in the deaths of black men.

Though he couldn’t have predicted the current climate when he started writing in 2009, Browne’s book seems especially timely as debates rage over police brutality and systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

Lino Rivera, 16, center, tells Lt. Samuel Battle, left, and Patrolman Alfred Eldridge that he was not mistreated at a store in Harlem. A false report that he had been brutally beaten for shoplifting sparked rioting in 1935. (Photo: Via Beacon Press)

Browne, the editorial page editor at the New York Daily News, read an article in his own paper that year about the city’s plan to rename the intersection at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem as Samuel J. Battle Plaza, after the officer.

He had been covering the Big Apple since the city’s golden age of tabloid journalism in the mid-1970s, but he had not previously wondered how the police department had become integrated. This piqued his interest.

Samuel J. Battle was New York's first African-American police lieutenant. (Photo: Via Beacon Press)

To piece together the details of the trailblazer’s life, Browne conducted archival research, interviewed people who knew Battle and tracked down the unpublished manuscript to a biography that poet Langston Hughes had been writing about the officer.

“You essentially had Langston Hughes taking down Battle’s words, polishing them up very nicely and putting them as much as he could into a narrative framework,” he said.

According to Browne, Hughes’ book starts off strongly with an almost magical, “lyrically brilliant evocation” of Battle’s early life but gets weaker as it progresses.

Battle, who was born in North Carolina in 1883, moved up north and settled in New York, where he became its first black officer in 1911.

He is credited with saving the life of a white cop during a race riot in 1919 at the corner that now bears his name.

Despite his dedication and talent, he endured overt hostility from white civilians and the silent treatment from many colleagues who believed he should not be a police officer. Some even traveled up to Harlem to gawk at him while he worked.

He has been called the “Jackie Robinson of the NYPD.”

Browne notes that the New York Police Department has undergone radical changes for the better since Battle retired in 1951 at the age of 68. But there are still lessons to be learned from his story today.

Arthur Browne is the author of 'One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York.' (Photo: Beacon Press)

When Battle became the first black New York City cop, African-Americans made up approximately 3 percent of the city’s population, so there was a considerable gap in their representation in the police department, he said.

“Never in the history of the NYPD has the ratio of blacks on the police force come close to approximating the ratio of blacks in the New York population,” he said. “The police department here is working to overcome, but there’s a long way to go on that.”

Throughout the 20th century, many activists and advocates have argued that having more black police officers could foster greater trust between African-American communities and police departments.

“Some rough equality of representation on the force would, I believe,” Browne said, “enhance some confidence that there is an understanding and a connection between those who are doing the policing and those who are being policed.”