One of Harlem’s iconic crossroads, 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, bares a sign, Samuel J. Battle Plaza. But most probably don’t know who Battle is.
“He was described very briefly as the Jackie Robinson of the police department,” said author Arthur Browne.
Battle is the man who broke down the racial barrier in the NYPD back in 1911. Browne wants to make sure everyone knows. His new book is titled, “One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York.”
“It was a closed society. It was locked down excluding African-Americans,” Browne said. “There was very little hope, it seemed, that blacks would ever have a place in the police force.”
Browne is the editorial page editor of the Daily News. A longtime New York journalist, his curiosity was piqued when he read about the 2009 street naming ceremony. He wanted to know more about the officer. He discovered that legendary writer Langston Hughes was hired by Battle to write his autobiography in 1949. The book was never published, so Battle’s grandson let Browne tell the trailblazing officer’s story using the manuscript.
“You find Sam Battle’s thoughts and his intimate feelings,” Browne said. “He believed that if he failed, the white establishment would say, ‘Look, the colored cop couldn’t succeed. He wasn’t good enough.’”
A handful of black men were police officers in Brooklyn before Battle joined the NYPD, but that was back in the late 1800s, when Brooklyn was still its own city and had not merged with New York yet.
Battle had to fight against plenty of hateful racism from white officers as the first to rise through the ranks, retiring as a lieutenant. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia then named him the parole commissioner in 1941. The street sign was placed at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue because it’s where he saved a white officer from being killed.
“That opens the door a little bit for him to be accepted by the members of the New York City Police Department,” Browne said.
And paving the way for other blacks to join the NYPD.