History February 24, 2022 at 03:00 pm

Remembering Miami’s first Black police officers who weren’t allowed to arrest White people in 1944

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor February 24, 2022 at 03:00 pm

February 24, 2022 at 03:00 pm | History

Miami's first Black police officers weren't allowed to arrest White people. Image via NBC Miami

On September 1, 1944, five African-American men made history when they were sworn in as the first Black police officers with the Miami Police Department. Ralph White, Moody Hall, Clyde Lee, Edward Kimball, and John Milledge were, however, not referred to as “officers” as their White counterparts, but rather, as “patrolmen.”

They were assigned to the “Central Negro District,” an area that included parts of Liberty City and Colored Town otherwise known as Overtown. They were “forced” to operate out of a dentist’s office until the Black police precinct and courthouse was created in 1950, bringing forth a separate and segregated headquarters, according to NBC Miami.

At the time the five patrolmen were sworn in, the Second World War was ending. Many Black soldiers who served in the war had returned to Miami leading to an increase in the Black population in the city. In 1944, the city’s Black population reached over 43,000. Most lived in the Central Negro District, formerly called “Colored Town”, as stated in a report by PANACHE Magazine.

As Miami’s population grew amid Jim Crow, it didn’t have a lot of white officers patrolling the streets, particularly, Liberty City and Overtown largely due to the fear of going into these Black communities. During this period, leaders of the Negro Citizens League that had just been created told the city that a Black police presence would be needed.

The city listened and Don D. Rosenfelder, Director of the Public Safety Department responsible for police services, started recruiting the first Black police officers by asking Black leaders to nominate candidates, PANACHE Magazine said. Amid segregation, Whites were against the idea and so the training of the Black officers was achieved “under extreme secrecy.”

Lee, Hall, Kimball, Milledge and White, who became known as Miami’s “first five”, were also sworn in secretly. “They weren’t bitter, they were grateful for their life journey, but they certainly talked about how hard it was being Black, especially at a place that didn’t accept you because of the color of your skin,” Terrance Cribbs-Lorrant, who is the director of a museum in Overtown that highlights the story of the five Black officers, told NBC Miami.

Indeed, because of segregation, these five men were not allowed to arrest White people “even if a crime was happening right in front of them”, according to NBC Miami. They could also not operate out of the main Miami Police Station so they policed by walking and riding bicycles instead of driving cars. There were instances where arrested prisoners were taken to jail on bicycle handlebars or by walking and getting into rides from residents, South Florida Times reported.

What is more, the five men had no radio contact and couldn’t wear their uniforms to court. There was also no job security or retirement benefits.

After a year, the number of Black patrolmen grew to 15 and they were assigned to the historically Black areas of Coconut Grove.

PANACHE Magazine writes: “The men were given a prescribed route to travel between Overtown and Coconut Grove that would keep them from interacting with Whites as much as possible. They were directed to clear crowded sidewalks, stop all gambling and profanity, confiscate weapons as well as stop and frisk suspicious people or known troublemakers. As a result, violent crimes in Black areas were reduced by fifty percent.”

Milledge was, unfortunately, the first Black officer to be killed in the line of duty on November 1, 1946. The others were able to see changes in the department including when it was integrated in 1963. Today, the historic Black Precinct and Courthouse Museum honors the history of Miami’s “first five” Black police officers who opened the door for African Americans in law enforcement.

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