A Look Back at Black Leaders in the Criminal Justice Profession

During my life, there were many Black lawyers, judges, educators, criminal justice professionals and athletes who influenced me. We have the first Black police officer in Chicago and New York City. Also, the first Black female police officer in Los Angeles. The first Black deputy West of the Mississippi (who is also the model for the Lone Ranger). The first Black female Federal judge. The Black lawyer who influenced most of the Black lawyers today. In addition, Black criminal defense lawyers who became famous for activities outside of the law. You may ask why did I list Moses Walker, the first Black major league baseball player and first-year law student. He was the defendant in the trial of the century. He was accused of 2nd-degree murder of a White man in Syracuse at the turn of the 20th century and was acquitted by an all-white jury. Incidentally, he received a standing ovation from the jury and the all-White peanut gallery after the verdict.

Samuel James Battle (January 16, 1883 – August 7, 1966). NYC First Black Cop

The first black police officer in New York City. After attending segregated schools in North Carolina, Battle moved north, first to Connecticut, then to New York City, where he took a job as a train porter and began studying for the New York City Police Department civil service exam. He was sworn in on March 6, 1911.

He was born on January 16, 1883, in New Bern, North Carolina.

His brother-in-law was Patrolman Moses P. Cobb, who started working for the Brooklyn Police force in the early 1890s before the unification of NYC and acted as Battle’s mentor. “Big Sam” as he was known — 6 feet, 3 inches tall, 280 pounds — earned the respect of his fellow officers after saving one officer’s life in the early 1920s. They subsequently voted to allow him into the Sergeant’s Academy. As the NYPD’s first black lieutenant, during the intense Harlem Riots of 1935 – after 3 days of violence he circulated fliers of himself with the young boy smiling who had allegedly been murdered in the basement of the Kress Department store.

He joined the force in 1911, assigned first to San Juan Hill, Manhattan, the neighborhood where Lincoln Center is today, which preceded Harlem as one of the key African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan. He was soon moved to Harlem, as the African-American population there grew. He would later become the first African-American police sergeant (1926), lieutenant (1935), and the first African-American parole commissioner (1941).

Georgia Ann Hill Robinson (May 12, 1879 – September 21, 1961).
LA First Black Female Cop

The first black female police officer to work for the Los Angeles (California) Police Department (LAPD)—and possibly the first in the country—in 1916. Months before 15 percent of the police force of the United States would begin enlisting to enter combat in the first World War, Robinson began her groundbreaking twelve-year career with the LAPD. Robinson’s work for the LAPD would lead her to civic work, and she would devote her life to serving the residents of Los Angeles by fighting against segregation and for women’s welfare.

Paul Leroy Robeson (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976).
All American Football star, lawyer, singer, actor, activist.

An American bass-baritone concert artist and stage and film actor who became famous both for his cultural accomplishments and for his political activism. Educated at Rutgers College and Columbia University, he was also a star athlete in his youth. He also studied Swahili and linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London in 1934.[3] His political activities began with his involvement with unemployed workers and anti-imperialist students whom he met in Britain and continued with support for the Loyalist cause in

the Spanish Civil War and his opposition to fascism. In the United States, he also became active in the Civil Rights Movement and other social justice campaigns. His sympathies for the Soviet Union and
for communism, and his criticism of the United States government and its foreign policies, caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

In 1915, Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College, where he was twice named a consensus All-American in football, and was the class valedictorian. Almost 80 years later, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He received his LL.B. from Columbia Law School while playing in the National Football League (NFL). At Columbia, he sang and acted in off-campus productions. After graduating, he became a figure in the Harlem Renaissance with performances in The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillum Got Wings.

Police Wagon in 1881
James L. Shelton
First African-American Police Officer in Chicago

The first African American policeman was appointed and joined the force in 1871. Ironically, he was on the force during the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed 3.5 square miles of the city, including most police facilities.

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938)
The author of the “Black National Anthem”

An American author and civil rights activist. He was married to civil rights activist Grace Nail Johnson. Johnson was a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he started working in 1917. In 1920, he was the first African American to be chosen as executive secretary of the organization, effectively the operating officer. He served in that position from 1920 to 1930. Johnson established his reputation as a writer, and was known during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novels, and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture.

He was appointed under President Theodore Roosevelt as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua for most of the period from 1906 to 1913. In 1934 he was the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University. Later in life, he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University, a historically black university.

While working as a teacher, Johnson also read the law to prepare for the bar. In 1897, he was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since the Reconstruction era ended. He was also the first black in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar. In order to be accepted, Johnson had a two-hour oral examination before three attorneys and a judge. He later recalled that one of the examiners, not wanting to see a black man admitted, left the room. Johnson drew on his law background especially during his years as a civil rights activist and leading the NAACP.

Charles Hamilton Houston (September 3, 1895 – April 22, 1950). The Godfather of all Black Law Educators.

A prominent African-American lawyer, Dean of Howard University Law School, and NAACP first special counsel, or Litigation Director. A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Houston played a significant role in dismantling Jim Crow laws, especially attacking segregation in schools and racial housing covenants. He earned the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”.

Houston is also well known for having trained and mentored a generation of black attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, future founder and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the first Black Supreme Court Justice. He recruited young lawyers to work on the NAACP’s litigation campaigns, building connections between Howard’s and Harvard’s university law schools.

John Stewart Rock (October 13, 1825 – December 3, 1866)

An American teacher, doctor, dentist, lawyer and abolitionist, historically associated with the coining of the term “black is beautiful” (thought to have originated from a speech he made in 1858). Rock was one of the first African-American men to earn a medical degree. In addition, he was the first black person to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Constance Baker Motley (September 14, 1921 – September 28, 2005)

The first Black woman to become a federal judge in the U.S., was the 9th of 12 children from a family that immigrated from the West Indies to New Haven, Connecticut. She was an avid reader about civil rights heroes, and within her readings, she became inspired to become a lawyer.

Motley began her college career at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1941. Two years later, she transferred to New York University. There she received her Bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1944, she was accepted into Columbia Law School, becoming the first Black woman to be accepted into this school.

While there, she met Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Motley started working there while she finished obtaining her degree. This opportunity brought her many high profile cases often involving school desegregation, and she played a major role in the legal preparation for the 1954 Brown vs. Board – being the first Black woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. She also defended protestors who were arrested during the Freedom Rides sit-ins of the early 1960s.

Bass Reeves (July 1838 – January 12, 1910)
The real “Lone Ranger”

The first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. He worked mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory. During his long career, he was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons. He shot and killed 14 people in self-defense. Reeves has been credited for being the model for the “Lone Ranger.”

Moses Fleetwood Walker (October 7, 1856 – May 11, 1924).
Sixty years before Jackie Robinson.

An American professional baseball catcher who is credited with being the first black man to play in Major League Baseball (MLB). A native of Mount Pleasant, Ohio, and a star athlete at Oberlin College as well as the University of Michigan, Walker played for semi-professional and minor league baseball clubs before joining the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association (AA) for the 1884 season.

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