This weekend will see the flourish of red, white, and blue return as Independence Day festivities fill the streets. No other symbol has been more emblematic of our country’s independence than the American flag. Unfurled and waving in the breeze, the primary colors usually invoke national pride and liberation. The American flag had an altogether different meaning for Samuel Battle, the New York Police Department’s first black cop, during the beginning of his career as in 1911. In a working environment where his fellow white officers wanted him gone, it meant isolation, as Arthur Browne shows in his biography, One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York:
Battle’s work chart scheduled his first reserve duty for midnight to 8 a.m. on the Thursday after he started patrol. Finishing a four-to-twelve night shift, he was to sleep in the stationhouse with a platoon on call in the event of an emergency. A dormitory was outfitted with a couple dozen bunks and was draped in the odors of overworked men, discarded shoes, soiled linens, and tobacco smoke.
Fetid air and all, the officers of the Sixty-Eighth Street stationhouse resolved that this was a whites-only domain. Cops carried a cot upstairs to a room on the second floor, where the precinct stored the American flag, and left the mattress and springs under Old Glory as the black man’s accommodations.
Without complaint, Battle went up to the flag loft. Several times, a captain named Thomas Palmer asked Battle how he was faring with fellow officers. Just fine, Battle reported. “I don’t expect the men to talk to me and take me in their arms as a brother,” he told the captain.
Inevitably, newspaper reporters caught wind that Battle was subjected to silence and isolation. They sought him out, but he held firm to voicing no unhappiness. Interviewed by the Times three weeks after he arrived at the stationhouse, Battle made sure to state that no officer had uttered offensive epithets, and he responded, “I have nothing to say about that, Sir,” when asked about his fellow officers’ refusal to speak with him.
As if to make a much larger point, he shared with the reporter the Battle family lore that had been handed down through bondage and that represented a claim to fully earned United States citizenship: the story of his great-grandfather, a slave, fighting beside a young master in the American Revolution.
“He is a good sensible negro, and his conduct is above reproach,” Palmer told the Times, adding, “He seems to know what he bargained for in taking a place on the force.”
While that was surely true, alone in the flag loft, Battle would still consider the chasm between the ideals of the banner unfurled overhead and the abuse to which he was being subjected:
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.
Some of them had arrived so recently in America that they spoke as though they had marbles in their mouths. Some of them again knew so little about New York City that they could not give an inquiring stranger any helpful directions. Yet, these brand new Americans could become policemen without going through the trials and tribulations to which I, a native born American, had been subject in achieving my appointment.
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?
True to form, Battle made a blessing of exile. Privacy afforded him the opportunity for self-education. He read, concentrating on police training manuals to start preparing for the promotion exam for sergeant. These men who would not speak with him today as an equal would answer to him tomorrow as a superior.
In One Righteous Man, Arthur Browne chronicles the life of Battle, who would become the first black sergeant, black lieutenant, and black parole commissioner, overcoming unimaginable hardships in the process. Through those hardships, Battle paved the way for blacks in the police force and liberated the employment block for blacks in previously whites-only positions overall. Rather fitting, actually, for One Righteous Man to go on sale the week of the Fourth of July.
About the Author
Arthur Browne has written the first-draft history of New York for more than forty years. As a reporter and editor, he has chronicled six mayors, from Abe Beame through Bill de Blasio, and coauthored I, Koch, a biography of Mayor Ed Koch. Browne presently serves as the Daily News editorial page editor. In 2007, he led a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for editorials that documented the epidemic illnesses afflicting thousands of 9/11 rescue and recovery workers.