The Black Patrolmen of 1940s Memphis

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Adelaide Hudson was visibly pregnant. The police officer beat her anyway.

In front of neighbors in her South Memphis public housing complex, a law enforcement officer struck Hudson with the stock of a BB gun, breaking her rib and sending her to the hospital. He had been in search of Hudson’s teenaged nephew, who was alleged to have shot and grazed a girl with a pellet.

Hudson’s infraction was not referring to the officer as “sir” when police entered her apartment. After she was released from care, she was found guilty of disorderly conduct.

Hudson’s treatment was egregious, but by no means unusual. At the time of the event in August 1947, tensions between black citizens and white patrolmen were at an all-time high. Memphis was home to minorities increasingly incensed at the racially-motivated behavior of public officials; authorities hid their prejudice with false testimony. When Eli Blaine lost an eye to a brutal police assault in 1948, his attackers claimed he fell out of a car.

A photograph of Blaine’s mangled, bandaged face ended up on the cover of Memphis World, a newspaper with a mostly black circulation. More stories of victims followed. Protests grew louder; petitions grew longer. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) floated the possibility of lawsuits.

The Memphis Police Department would eventually assign nine black recruits to the force. But having a badge and having actual authority were two very different things.

Memphis political leader E.H. Crump had first tried to placate angry citizens by offering to build parks in neighborhoods populated by minorities. It was a condescending solution, and one that was rejected outright.

What he did not want to do was deputize any portion of the black population. But with the killing of James Mosby in 1948—a World War II veteran who was involved in a domestic dispute that police answered with an escalation of violence—the climate was not leaving him much choice.

It had been 70 years since black officers routinely patrolled the city, and that had only been because an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1878 either killed white officers or prompted them to flee. (Two black detectives were also appointed in 1919, but it was a shameless attempt to get votes and ended after only 6 months.) An infamous symbol of Southern intolerance, Memphis had subsequently developed a reputation as having a reckless police force. But by fall 1948, 51 locations across the South had integrated patrol officers in an attempt to reduce police violence. They could no longer fight the tide.

When police and fire commissioner Joseph Boyle agreed to open the precinct doors for black applicants in the fall of 1948, 160 prospects came calling. Of those, 13 were evaluated at the police academy, and nine made it to the street in uniform. (Three more were hired several weeks later.)

Boyle was no civil rights advocate, however, and equality was not something he was prepared to extend. The black officers were not allowed to change clothes at the main precinct, attend roll call, or even testify in court hearings. (They were allowed to carry firearms, but had to purchase the guns themselves.) Instead, they were installed under an informal “police your own” initiative, expected to walk the beat of black neighborhoods and curb impropriety like gambling, profanity, and prostitution.  

The officers were also prohibited from arresting whites, only detaining them, which meant that those responding to a call were sometimes dismissed by the complaining party with rolled eyes. Residents believed the officers to be impotent, a reality often enforced by tenured white officers who openly mocked and insulted their black counterparts.

One of the patrolmen, Jerry Williams, remembered his frustrations during a 2011 town meeting where he was honored for his service. At the time, it didn’t feel like such a privilege:

“…There were times when we had to give a traffic ticket to a white person and oftentimes, this white man would—he wanted to make sure that we knew he was white. He would stick his head out of the car to make sure that we knew he was white…We would call in from the beat every hour. So, this commanding officer at that time called me in and told me, he said, “Williams.” I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Did you give so and so a ticket down there on Beale and Hernando?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, I did’. He said, ‘I want to tell you, you give another white person a ticket, you won’t have this job any more.’”

Williams eventually made homicide detective, exhibiting a tenacity that ultimately exhausted the prejudiced officers on the force. Wendell Robinson, another of the original nine, received attention for helping to break up a con game. In 1965, he was promoted to lieutenant after scoring higher than anyone in the department on the exam. He retired in 1980.

A second “class” of black officers was hired on in 1951, but it wasn’t until the United States sued the city in 1974 over discriminatory hiring policies that their law enforcement truly began to evolve beyond racial boundary lines. Today, half of the city’s police force is made up of men and women of color. While it hasn’t eliminated racial discord on the force or in the city, the advancement toward that goal arguably began with the nine men who suited up in 1948—even if they had to do it outside the precinct.

Additional Source: “Aldridge, Etc. vs. City of Memphis [PDF].”