By SAM ROBERTS
Published: June 26, 2011
His parents were among the last generation born into Southern slavery, and his own birth in 1883 was notable for another benchmark: At 16 pounds, he was the biggest baby ever recorded in North Carolina.
“I guess I’ve always wanted to be large, and I have been large,” Samuel Jesse Battle recalled decades later.
But his personal growth was threatened when, as a teenager, he was caught pilfering cash from a safe belonging to his boss, R. H. Smith, a landlord who predicted that within a year, the young man would be in prison.
“That was the turning point of my life,” said Battle, who avoided prosecution because the boss was a friend of his father, a Methodist minister. “I said, ‘From this day on, I shall always be honest and honorable, and I’m going to make Mr. Smith out a liar.’ ”
The New York Times
On June 28, 1911, a century ago Tuesday, Samuel Battle largely delivered on his resolutions. Having grown to 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, he became the first black person appointed to the New York City police force. He would go on to become the first black sergeant, in 1926; the first black lieutenant, in 1935; and the city’s first black parole commissioner, in 1941.
In 1911, the city’s population was about 2 percent black, and a number of black officers were already on patrol in Brooklyn, including Battle’s brother-in-law and mentor, Moses Cobb, but they had been hired by the City of Brooklyn before it merged with New York in 1898. The Police Department considers Wiley G. Overton, sworn in by Brooklyn in 1891, as the city’s pioneer black officer.
But Battle was the first black person appointed to New York’s combined 10,000-member force, ranking 199th of 638 applicants on the police test. The department will mark his appointment on Tuesday during Cadet Corps graduation ceremonies.
What a difference a century makes. Today, blacks are 23 percent of the city’s population, and 18 percent of all police officers. Black, Hispanic and Asian New Yorkers make up nearly 48 percent among all ranks, and among police officers they have been a majority since 2006.
Among higher-ranking officers, promoted on the basis of competitive civil service tests, minority officers constitute 39 percent of sergeants, up from 19 percent a decade ago; 25 percent of lieutenants, up from 13 percent; and 17 percent of captains, up from 5 percent. Of the 43 blacks who have passed the test for captain since then, nearly half have been promoted to higher ranks.
Samuel Battle (he hated being called Sam; “every Tom, Dick and Harry who shines shoes, they used to call him Sam,” he said) moved to New York for good in 1901. He was hired as a houseboy at the Sagamore Hotel at Lake George — which, he recalled, did not admit Jews — and as a $32-a-month red cap at Grand Central Terminal. For most of his career, he lived in Harlem.
He considered working for the Post Office or the Customs Service, but decided on the police force because, he said, “it would be a permanent place in which I could support my wife and family without worry.”
When he applied, Battle was rejected by police surgeons, supposedly because of a heart murmur, but he passed a medical retest after prominent blacks protested to city officials. He suffered the silent treatment from fellow officers at his West 68th Street station house. A threatening note with a racial epithet and a hole the width of a bullet was left on his bunk.
In an interview with the Columbia University Center for Oral History in 1960, six years before he died, Battle recalled that he never complained to outsiders about his treatment from co-workers. If a colleague had something against him, Battle challenged him to meet in the cellar and “take it out on my black behind.” Nobody did.
His comrades were won over in 1919 when Battle dashed into a crowd of rioters at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue to rescue a white officer. “The white officers worked in an all-Negro neighborhood, practically, and they needed me as much as I needed them and sometimes more,” Battle recalled.
In 2009, when the Harlem intersection was named in Battle’s honor, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said the episode “was just one example among many of why Officer Battle was so respected and admired by his colleagues.”
“In fact, just a few days after this incident,” Mr. Kelly said, “they voted unanimously to admit him to a prep course for a sergeant’s exam.”
Early in his career, Battle was pointed out by tour guides as “New York’s first colored policeman.” Later, he was banished to Brooklyn, for raiding a politically connected establishment. He served as mentor to a young patrolman, William O’Dwyer, who would become mayor.
In 1935, Battle played a pivotal role in quelling a riot in Harlem, ignited by the arrest of a 16-year-old shoplifter whom store employees subdued and released through a back door. False rumors spread that the youth had been fatally beaten. By finding the boy, having him photographed and circulating his smiling image, Battle ended the riot.
In an earlier riot on the West Side, though, when white officers were beating black rioters, Battle “got even,” he said, by “whipping white heads.”
He also participated in the 1931 opening of a Harlem station house, where the tap dancer Bill Robinson promised a gift to the officer who made the first arrest. Battle shoved Robinson aside, he recalled, “and he said something to me, and I grabbed him and took him into the station house and had him booked.” After Robinson discovered that the arrest was a prank, he gave Battle a hat as a gift anyway.
In the Columbia interview, Battle recalled that in the 1940s “there were many cases of mistreatment of the populace by the police.” He blamed prejudice on parents. “All the old ones should be dead and put in the ocean!” said Battle. who was in his mid-70s. “Then we’d have a good world to live in.”
In 1936, celebrating his 25th anniversary on the force, he said that while he could not imagine the elimination of prejudice, it seemed to be declining as blacks improved educationally and financially.
“What we want is an equal opportunity to enjoy life and to make our own way,” he said. His advice: “Make your own opportunities. When you see them, take hold of them and never give up.”