A Black Officer of NYPD with Many Firsts
Black law enforcement officers around the country have achieved many firsts, but Samuel J. Battle began breaking records on his day of birth. Born on January 18, 1883 in New Bern, North Carolina, Battle was the largest baby born in the state, weighing in at 16 pounds! His size would remain—both literally and figuratively—larger than life; Battle grew up to have great influence in the New York City Police Department, but also to physically be 6’3” and 280 lbs. He was even known fondly by friends and colleagues as “Big Sam.”
Growing up in the Reconstruction-Era South, Battle attended segregated schools in his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina. It was in his hometown as a teenager that he would find himself inspired to seek a future career in law enforcement after a teenage fall from grace. During a rather rebellious streak, Battle—the son of a Methodist preacher—was caught by his boss stealing cash from his safe. The boss, being friends with Battle’s father, was persuaded from pressing charges on the young Sam Battle, however he left the teen with a warning: it was his belief that if Battle were not to clean up his act, he would be in a jail cell by the end of the year! Determined to prove his naysayers wrong, he felt motivated to become the opposite of a criminal—a police officer.
As a young adult, Battle moved north, first to Connecticut and then New York City in 1901, where he sought a number of odd jobs including roles as a train porter, and even a houseboy at the Sagamore Hotel. Years later with a growing family to support, Battle sought the advice of his brother-in-law, Officer Moses Cobb, who 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. Battle placed 119th out of 638 applicants to the New York City Police Department. On June 28, 1911, at the age of 28, Samuel J. Battle was the first African American Officer officially hired by the NYPD. Battle’s first beat in the Big Apple was San Juan Hill, an area of the city now known as Lincoln Center, which served as the original center of Black life in the city. After World War I, he was assigned to the growing Harlem neighborhood, and quickly became a well-known figure in the neighborhood’s history.
But Battle’s career with the NYPD was only beginning; in 1926, he became the department’s first Black officer to achieve the rank of sergeant, and in 1935 he ascended up 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 both white citizens and officers. However, Battle often found that while he faced great adversity, there were a great number of his peers who 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.
Battle retired from the NYPD in 1951 after a 40-year career and remained in the city until his death on August 7, 1966 at the age of 81. In 2009, his legacy with the NYPD was celebrated when the intersection of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue was named “Samuel J. Battle Plaza” in his honor.
Black Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement.
Category: Black History