In the accompanying photograph, the first African-American policement in Atlanta are, from left in the front: Henry Hooks, Claude Dixon, Ernest H. Lyons; back: Robert McKibbens, Willard Strickland, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, and John Sanders.
I recently read Georgia author Thomas Mullen’s first in a series of mysteries featuring the first African-American policemen in Atlanta.
After the first book, Darktown, appeared in 2016, he wrote an article for the Atlanta magazine about the history of the eight men who took the great risk of doing a job neither white people nor many African-Americans wanted them to do.
The second book in the series, Lightning Men, is newly released.
Mayor William Hartsfield was perhaps not considered progressive, but he was looking to bring Atlanta into compliance with mid-20th century civil rights laws. He met with religious leaders, including Martin Luther King Sr., about ways in which African-Americans could progress in their native city. He and Police Chief Herbert Jenkins (himself a member of the Klan) initiated the young men into the police force on April 3, 1948.
In his speech that day, Mayor Hartsfield acknowledged that 95% of the white police did not agree with the idea of having African-Americans on the force. That 95% would make life very difficult for the black officers in the years to come. In fact, they were not allowed to work out of the white police headquarters, but were consigned to a basement in the Butler Street YMCA for five years.
They were also not allowed to arrest white people, drive squad cars, or wear their uniforms to and from the Butler St. Y. Their beat was the Sweet Auburn area, consisting of black middle class and underclass neighborhoods. The area was called “Darktown” by white folks, and God help the black cop who tried to do anything to solve a crime that would take him out of that neighborhood.
Darktown fictionalizes two of those first recruits. Lucius Boggs is the son of a respected minister. He has a college degree and had lived a fairly privileged life for an African-American until World War II when he enlisted and was kept at the South Carolina training camp for the entire war because of superiors not wanting to send men overseas who might be inclined to tell foreigners what being black in the US was really like.
Boggs’s partner, Tommy Smith, comes from the underclass neighborhood of Sweet Auburn. He was on active duty during the war, in a tank division. He is muscled and has never been able to afford the sensitivities that define his partner.
One night they see a white man hit a lamppost on their beat. When they go to investigate, they find a young black woman with him. She has a bruise on her jaw. A couple of days later, they are called to the scene where her body has been disposed of, a bullet through her heart.
It is clear that the white force couldn’t care less about who had murdered her. Boggs takes it upon himself to investigate and begins to break every rule laid down by white supremacy of what he can and can’t do as a “Negro” police officer.
Thus begins a harrowing tale of the injustices heaped upon the African-American community of Atlanta by Klansmen in the police force, of ex-cops who form a group called the Rust Division who come in to help out the white cops when things need to be cleaned up, of the efforts by the white cops to undermine their African-American colleagues, and the almost superhuman effort by the black cops to continue in their jobs when they realize what they’re facing.
Mullen, who is white, started his research in 2012. He says in his article, “I learned of these officers when I read former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Gary Pomerantz’s 1996 history of Atlanta, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. He devotes just four pages of his 545-page epic to the city’s first black cops, whose swearing-in prefaced the coming victories of the civil rights movement. But I wanted to know more. As black people in the Jim Crow South, they were second-class citizens, barred from the front of buses, most restaurants, and public parks, and constantly at risk of state-sanctioned or mob-rule violence. Yet they were also authority figures, charged with enforcing laws that often oppressed them and their families.”
A transplant from Rhode Island to, eventually, Decatur, Mullen was fascinated by this bit of history. He saw it as a vehicle for depicting larger social conflicts. At the time of his research, Michael Brown and so many others were still alive, but Trayvon Martin had been murdered by George Zimmerman and a united effort to undermine the first African-American President had begun. Police violence against African-Americans was not yet country-wide news, yet certainly those in Atlanta knew only too well what police violence was like.
Mr. Mullen also acknowledges that, as a transplant from Rhode Island, might seem to be trying to muscle in on the work of native Southern writers. But, he said, “My past work has wrestled with what it means to be American and how the various tangled threads of our past have combined to weave us into who we are today. To write about American identity in the South means writing about race.”
The full article can be read here: Thomas Mullen talks about Darktown
The eight men came from a variety of backgrounds. Ernest H. Lyons had seen a woman stabbed when he was 7 years old. No police came to help. The incident made him want to be a cop. John H. Sanders was the salutatorian of his graduating class at Booker T. Washington High School, but he could only find work as a janitor. When they plus Claude Dixon, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, Henry Hooks, Robert McKibbens, and Willard Strickland began active duty, they were called “YMCA cops” by some black people who resented their authority. White cops made false reports of wrongdoing by the black policemen and even tried to run them over as they crossed the street.
Mullen’s novel is well-written and certainly atmospheric, to the point where I could say it should probably not be read by everyone. For me, as a white woman, I read such books in order to bear witness to the victims of racial violence wherever and whenever it occurs. It’s often not easy for me. There were many times while reading Darktown that I had to close the book because of its relentless realism.
But if reading such a book is painful to me, I have to always remind myself of the pain suffered by the victims themselves, throughout our tortured history. It is, in part, my way of atoning for America’s original sin.