Samuel Jesse Battle was the first African American police officer in the New York Police Department (NYPD).
Born on January 16, 1883, in New Bern, North Carolina, Battle was sworn in on March 6, 1911, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant in 1935.
Affectionately called ‘Big Sam’, Battle was recorded as the largest baby born in North Carolina at 16 pounds, growing up to be 6’3’’ and over 280 pounds.
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“I guess I’ve always wanted to be large, and I have been large,” Battle recalled decades later, according to a publication.
An incident that happened during Battle’s teenage days set him to the path of making history as the first African American NYPD police officer.
Battle was caught stealing money from his supervisor’s safe, who wouldn’t press charges because of his relationship with the former’s father. But the supervisor who went by the name R.H. Smith predicted that Battle would be imprisoned within a year.
Smith’s gloomy prediction served as a wakeup call for Battle who vowed to prove his supervisor wrong.
Battle moved to Connecticut after, then to New York City, where he took a job as a train porter. He began studying for the NYPD’s civil service exam, according to Harlem World. According to other publications, Battle worked as a houseboy and red cap at the Sagamore Hotel when he moved to Connecticut.
Battle’s decision to become a policeman was heavily influenced by his brother-in-law, Moses Cobb, who was a police officer for the city of Brooklyn before the city was merged with New York City.
Even though the City of Brooklyn had hired Cobb and other African American police officers before Battle’s appointment, Battle became the first African American to be appointed after the police forces merged in 1898, according to Black Past.
Battle officially joined the force on June 28, 1911, at the age of 28 after ranking 119th out of 638 on his police test.
Battle was initially assigned to the San Juan Hill section of New York, now known as Lincoln Center, a predominately Black area at the time. He was later transferred to Harlem becoming a well-known figure in the famous neighborhood. Battle endured racism and harassment from white officers and civilians, but his peers began to appreciate his effectiveness and legendary strength.
Battle became the first black sergeant in 1926, the first black lieutenant in 1935, and the first black parole commissioner in 1941.
During the 1943 race riot, triggered by the shooting of an African-American suspect by a white police officer, Battle, at the request of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, was called in to restore peace and order.
Battle retired as parole commissioner in 1951 but remained active in community activities for the Harlem area.
Battle endured discrimination and mistreatment while on the force from white civilians who traveled to Harlem to watch him work, as well as from the other white officers who refused to speak to him, according to Black Past.
It was reported that once he found a note on his bunk filled with racially charged and threatening language that had a hole the size of a bullet.
In an interview with the Columbia University Center for Oral History in 1960, Battle stated that he never complained to outsiders about his treatment from co-workers. In the Columbia interview, Battle recalled that in the 1940s “there were many cases of mistreatment of the populace by the police.”
“All the old ones should be dead and put in the ocean!” said Battle. who was in his mid-70s when he granted the interview. “Then we’d have a good world to live in. What we want is an equal opportunity to enjoy life and to make our own way,” he said.
Battle retired from the New York City Police Force in 1951 at 68. He was the highest-ranking African American on the force at that time. He died in New York City on August 7, 1966, at the age of 83.
In 2009, the corner of West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in New York was renamed Samuel J. Battle Plaza in honor of his achievements. That street corner marked the location where Battle saved a white officer’s life during a racial skirmish in 1919.
NYPD Deputy Inspector Kevin Catalina said during the unveiling ceremony, “Battle integrated an organization; it had to be an incredible battle… he had to endure all sorts of feelings toward him. He was an inspiring man.”