Samuel Jesse Battle
Samuel J. Battle, the first African American police officer in the New York Police Department, was born January 16, 1883, in New Bern, North Carolina. At the time, he was noted as the largest baby born in North Carolina at 16 pounds. Battle later grew to be 6’3’’ and over 280 pounds. His father was a Methodist minister.
Growing up in the Reconstruction-Era South, Battle attended segregated schools in New Bern, North Carolina. In his hometown as a teenager, he would find himself inspired to seek a future career in law enforcement after a teenage fall from grace. During a somewhat rebellious streak, Battle—the son of a Methodist preacher—was caught by his boss stealing cash from his safe. His boss, R.H. Smith, did not press charges because of his friendship with Battle’s father. However, Smith predicted Battle would be in prison within a year. Samuel Battle later said that he was determined to prove R.H. Smith wrong. He moved to Connecticut and then to New York City in 1901 and worked as a houseboy and red cap at the Sagamore Hotel.
Years later, with a growing family to support, Battle sought the advice of his brother-in-law, Officer Moses Cobb. The latter had begun working as a police officer in Brooklyn before the NYPD and Brooklyn police departments merged in 1898. Officer Cobb became his mentor and encouraged Battle to try for a position with the NYPD.
Although the City of Brooklyn had hired Cobb and other African American police officers before Battle’s appointment, Samuel Battle became the first African American to be appointed after the police forces merged in 1898. He ranked 119th out of 638 on his police test and officially joined the staff on June 28, 1911, at 28. Battle was initially assigned to the San Juan Hill neighborhood (now the Lincoln Center area), which was the heart of Black New York then. With the great migration of African-Americans leading up to World War I, Battle was reassigned to Harlem, which quickly became the center of African American life in the city.
In 1926 Samuel Battle became the NYPD’s first Black officer to achieve the rank of sergeant, and in 1935 he ascended the ranks to become NYPD’s first Black lieutenant. Finally, in 1941, Battle became NYPD’s first Black parole commissioner.
Despite his success as an officer, Lieutenant Battle faced a great deal of racism and bigotry from white citizens and officers. However, Battle often found that while he faced great adversity, a significant number of his peers held him in high regard—including many of his fellow officers and public officials. It would be these public officials who called upon Lieutenant Samuel Battle for answers when New York City found itself suffering the consequences of broader racial tension in the United States. In 1935, Battle was personally called upon by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to help diffuse the city’s first race riot of the 20th century.
Samuel 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 83.
In 2009, New York City renamed West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue Samuel J. Battle Plaza in honor of his achievements.