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One Righteous Man [Book Review]

Summary

One Righteous Man by Arthur Browne tells the story of Samuel Battle, the first Black police officer in New York City. In addition to braving the expected dangers of patrolling the streets Battle also had to contend with his fellow officers who felt he didn’t belong on the force. Over his decorated 40-year career Battle would fight crime but also discrimination and sabotage within the department.

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Show Notes

After achieving several firsts, Samuel Battle decided to hire Langston Hughes to help him write his autobiography. They put together a manuscript based on interviews, notes written by Battle, and contributions from others. But there was no interest when they tried to get it published. Battle tried again with another author but even after securing a preface from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, there was still no interest.

Things didn’t work out with Battle trying to get his manuscript published but it became a wealth of first-hand information. When Browne began working on One Righteous Man there were these two sources of information to review and reference. Quite a bit of source material directly from Battle. Browne explains that Battle’s reason for writing the book at the time was in part because he’d lived an accomplished life.

But also because by the time Battle sat down to write the book, he had at least two grandchildren one of which was a grandson to whom he was very close. He desired to leave a record of his life for his grandson to tell him where he came from but more importantly where he ended up and his life experience along the way. In a sense, he wrote the book to leave a record of his life for the world but also for his grandson, which I thought was quite sweet.

One Righteous Man began on a somewhat humorous note as Battle, his wife, and their grandchildren are waiting for Langston Hughes to arrive. This is the day on which they will begin the interview and writing process. The kids are running about and Mrs. Battle is fussing over making sure that the house is just right. Langston Hughes is a legend now but even back then he was a well-respected writer so this was a momentous occasion.

That nervousness helped to humanize Battle and his family. How many of us will write books about our lives? And more importantly, how many of us will have lives that people want to read about? Here is this man who has done incredible things in his life but he and his family are nervous about this famous author coming to visit their home. (It’s kind of amusing that by the end of the writing process the rest of Battle’s family would be annoyed by the presence of Hughes.)

One Righteous Man begins with some insight into Battle’s childhood but that portion of the book while insightful is relatively short. His mother had been born into slavery but had very light skin as a result of her father being a White man. Battle’s father was fully Black and had also been enslaved. Together they tried to achieve some degree of stability and took great pride in their freedom. Battle was the 22nd of his father’s 26 children. 11 of the children were from two previous marriages or relationships and the remaining children were conceived with Battle’s mother.

It sounds like his dad was a pretty decent man in that despite having all of these children he was present and played an active role in all of their lives. He raised them in the church with a firm sense of discipline but was not a harsh man. Yet, given the time there were some questionable exchanges between father and son.

To give some context it should be noted that Battle was a huge baby, he weighed about 16 pounds at birth. He would grow up to be a very large man and was very big as a child. As a boy, he came across a group of White boys playing marbles and asked to join the game and they didn’t just reject him but replied quite rudely. Battle reacted to the insult by slapping the boy who owned the marbles. Given the time and with this being North Carolina, this incident despite taking place between kids could have become a really big thing.

Instead, the boy who had been slapped visited Battle’s home with his father to speak with Battle’s parents. To smooth over the situation, Battle’s father offered the boy and his father the option that either one of them could beat Battle as punishment. But hearing this, Battle stood up to his father and refused to take a beating from either of these people. He reasoned that he’d allow his father to beat him but would rather die than let these strangers lay a hand on him. I don’t think Battle deserved a beating but it boded well for the future that he recognized when he did wrong and was willing to be disciplined yet was also willing to stand up for himself. It shows that even at a young age he’d already developed a strong set of principles.

It also shows the type of father that Battle’s dad was in that he acknowledged Battle’s reasoning and had a conversation with him after. He explained to Battle that this was just a marbles game and there was no need to push into where he wasn’t wanted. This was a purely social situation and not something important like a job, school, etc. If they didn’t want to play with him he should have just found someone else to play with or something else to do. It says a lot that his dad acknowledged his views, recognized his error, and took the time to speak with him and offer advice.

In comparison to other parts of the South, conditions were a bit better for Black people in the area where Battle grew up in North Carolina. But things still weren’t great as opportunities for Black people were very limited. After the Civil War had ended, it was back to business as usual with the only difference being that the Black people were no longer owned by the White people. As Browne phrases it, after the war the White people just returned to their homes and the social hierarchy was relatively unchanged. Wealthier White people were on top, poor White people in the middle, and Black people regardless of income or social standing were at the bottom.

Once a Black young man reached a certain age, there was nothing else for him in the area. Job options were limited and there were no opportunities for Battle to further his education. He first left home and went to live with an older brother with plans to finish high school and attend college after which he hoped to become an attorney. Unfortunately, that brother passed away but the experience had some positives. His brother’s house was frequently visited by lawyers and other Black professionals.

Back in his hometown, there were few examples of how to build a career or progress into higher positions. In the brief time that Battle was with his brother, he was exposed to more examples of possibilities which allowed him to dream and think bigger. Returning to his hometown, everything seemed even smaller. He’d seen Black professionals and Black people living successful lives. And going home allowed him to see even more clearly just how limited things were for Black people.

Thus while still in his mid-teens, Battle decided to leave once again but this time he aimed for New York. His mother had some family members who lived in Brooklyn and operated a successful horse cart business. When they came to visit they were dressed nicely and could afford things of which local Black people could only dream. Being only 15 or 16 years old, his parents were a bit apprehensive about their young son picking up and moving to the big city.

They were born and raised in this part of North Carolina so likely hadn’t visited or at least spent much time elsewhere. But I think it was pretty cool that while being uncomfortable they still supported his dreams. Battle didn’t have to sneak off but they also didn’t just put him on a train and wish him luck. Instead, Battle’s mom made the journey with him to New York to help him get settled.

Traveling north from North Carolina brought Battle into contact with even stricter forms of segregation. There were barriers in his hometown but they were less readily visible. Moving through Virginia similar barriers were more blatantly displayed. That’s where he first saw segregated waiting rooms at train stations. And despite paying a regular fare he and his mom would be squished into raggedy segregated train cars. To make his mother a bit more comfortable, Battle dipped into his money to pay for better accommodations.

While his hometown wasn’t as bad as the surrounding areas things were getting progressively worse. They were coming to par with the institutional racism and segregation that was now the norm in other parts of the South. Hoodlums referred to as the “Red Shirts” would ride through the area around elections to intimidate Black people. While Battle was living in his hometown there weren’t blatantly segregated facilities and resources. But just a year after he’d left the town began implementing some of those measures. It would turn out that he’d left at just the right time.

Much of the history of Black people in New York City during the early 1900s focuses on Harlem. Having been born and raised in Brooklyn, I thought it would be interesting to learn about what it was like for some Black people living in Brooklyn at this time. But Battle just spent a few days in the area before moving to other parts of the Northeast in search of work. Instead of focusing on Brooklyn or even New York City you get a wider view of life and work in the region.

As would be later experienced by Black people during the Great Migration, things were arguably better for Black people in the North but that’s only in comparison to their immense difficulties in the South. For example, there’s a quote from a Brooklyn school principal who explained how limited the options were for his students as they were nearing graduation. The students at this school in Brooklyn were able to attend school up to the high school level with some then going on to college. Black youths in the North were a bit more fortunate than Black youths in the South because they had the opportunity to somewhat more easily attend school.

Yet, for a lot of those who completed high school, the most they could hope to aspire to would be jobs as bellboys and other positions along those lines. A lot of the more lucrative types of professions and careers were closed off to them. Thus even after obtaining a rather advanced education for the time, they still had very limited options for moving forward and achieving progress.

It remains unfortunately relevant in the present, that at the time there had been several incidents concerning Black people and the police. As with overseers and slave patrollers in the South during slavery, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was largely comprised of Irish and other White immigrants. These police officers were very aggressive and abusive towards the Black population. There were reports of individuals being attacked and severely beaten. In one instance, there was a riot and multiple Black people were dragged off streetcars and viciously attacked. There was also an attempted lynching.

Thomas Fortune was living in Brooklyn at that time and had quite a presence in the area. Hoping to bring about change Fortune and others from the Black community thought it might help to have Black officers join the all-White police department. With his encouragement, three Black men made early attempts to join the police force in Brooklyn but faced a lot of difficulties. They had to navigate various minefields just trying to gain admission into the police department. This consisted of an entrance exam followed by a physical. But that was the relatively easy part.

Once they passed the admissions requirements and received assignments, they found that they weren’t tasked with doing the type of police work that might be expected of a rookie. After going through all of that rigamarole for the shot at a better job and to make a difference, they found themselves not out on patrol but instead working as doormen or other service-type positions. In addition, they had to contend with passive-aggressive discriminatory treatment from their fellow officers. Of Brooklyn’s first Black recruits, some fell to the wayside.

Imagine in the South, it‘s stiflingly oppressive and openly hostile. You move to the North because you’ve heard that things there might be a bit better. You arrive and don’t feel the constant open threat of violence which is an improvement. But you still find yourself having to work within parameters and limitations that have been constructed to hold you in check solely based on your race. Reading about various facets of Black history in America, there’s a constant sense of striving, pushing, and doing all you can to make progress only to have society constantly working to keep you trapped at the bottom.

After moving about for a few years in search of work, Battle returned to New York City but this time in Manhattan. He lived in the Flat Iron and Tenderloin neighborhoods before settling in San Juan Hill which was then a Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in what is now the Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center area on the Upper West Side. This neighborhood would be the site of an especially large and heated racial incident between the police and Black/Hispanic residents which turned into a riot.

Battle found work at Grand Central Terminal as a Red Cap, a group of Black men who worked within the terminal as porters for the railroads. The job allowed him to meet a lot of celebrities and paid relatively well for the time. But it didn’t offer a lot of long-term benefits and there weren’t any real opportunities for advancement. After the riot in San Juan Hill, Battle moved to Harlem which was on its way to becoming America’s Black Mecca.

The riot resulted in a renewed call by activists and early civil rights leaders for Black people to join the police department, fire department, and other civil service departments. The plan was to integrate these organizations and address the major issues from within. Answering the call, Battle decided to join the police department. And as occurred with the first Black officers in Brooklyn, he had to jump through hoops.

He prepared for and passed the entrance exam but then somehow during the physical the doctor stated that he had medical issues. Thus began the search to find other doctors that would provide an unbiased report. Battle was then passed over multiple times as a way to block him from receiving an assignment within the department. Fortunately, he was able to persevere with some help from his brother-in-law. But yet again passing the admissions requirements despite the obstacles wasn’t the hardest part.

The trouble started from his very first day on the job and foreshadowed the problems that he would face. People gathered on his first day as it had been reported in the newspapers that he was the first Black officer in Manhattan. Black people gathered to cheer him on as they wanted him to do well. Some White people showed up out of curiosity but some of the White people who gathered had a problem with his appointment and called him the n-word as well as yelled other insults.

Being a police officer is a dangerous job but the risks are multiplied when you’re working with other officers who don’t want you on the force. The higher-ups weren’t giving him a hard time at that point. But there was more of a problem with the rank and file men who were his coworkers. Can you count on these men to have your back in the course of duty?

They were petty and used passive-aggressive tactics in an attempt to socially ostracize him. None of the other officers would talk to him and they tried various tactics to get him in trouble with hopes that he would be fired. They had people file false complaints about him and during overnight on-call shifts at the station, he was made to sleep in what sounded like a storage closet. He also began receiving death threats in anonymous letters at work but more troubling also received threats at home and now married, had to hide them from his wife.

Yet, he had to walk a fine line as the Black community was depending on him to be successful while White officers and citizens wanted him to fail. Battle placed a lot of importance on how he carried himself and how he was perceived. Shouldering these difficulties while still doing his job well and having to put up with nonsense from people was likely tiring. I can only imagine the inner turmoil Black people felt at trying to manage all of this while maintaining their composure.

Some of these officers were recent arrivals in the city from various parts of Europe and didn’t even know their way around. They arrived in America and were given all kinds of opportunities that weren’t being offered to Black people who were born and raised in the country. Yet, one of the very first things they learned was how to be racist toward Black people.

While One Righteous Man is about Battle and his experience as a police officer, it’s necessary to also tell the story of the police department. The history of the police department is rather brief but ties into its connection to City Hall from which it got its power and authority. If you’ve ever seen Gangs of New York or anything else about Tammany Hall then you’d be aware of New York’s history of corrupt politicians, public servants, etc.

There’s some discussion of Boss Tweed and future president Teddy Roosevelt. This part of One Righteous Man was a bit difficult to follow because there were so many names and events discussed in a short space of time. But it still managed to be very interesting and would make quite the political and legal thriller. There’s a lot of wheeling and dealing and not only do you have corruption within the police department but politicians are also involved.

I have no personal interest in politics as far as wanting to serve in any political office. But I do have an interest in the development of policies and political strategies and maneuvers can be very interesting. The different factions battling for political control combined with countless scams, rackets, and scandals became a page-turner. Watching movies about the mob or shows like “Narcos” it can be difficult to tell who the criminals are because they’re sometimes operating with assistance from law enforcement. The criminals are often paying off the police, lawyers, and judges while providing financial backing for politicians.

And here comes Battle arguably at the right or wrong time who finds himself in the middle of all this activity. He was called into service as part of an investigative squad and participated in raids and whatnot. The more that I read, the more I’m learning that a lot of the things that people do nowadays is no different from what people were doing in the past. Despite impressions given to the contrary, seemingly everything we do now has already been done.

In this case, back in the 1910s-1920s, they were having what’s referred to as “stag parties” or bachelor parties. There were strippers and illegal for the time activities taking place. So here are these big shots and upstanding citizens being arrested and carted off to jail for looking at strippers and carrying on at wild parties. This is just one example of several entertaining investigations.

One Righteous Man focuses on Battle but touches on some of the Black men who faced similar challenges joining other public service departments. There was another guy who either joined the police department after Battle or integrated the fire department and again there was this thing of tolerating ill-treatment until he couldn’t take it anymore.

It might not be right but I was glad when he finally got tired of the nonsense from his co-workers. Like Battle, he was a physically strong man in his prime who I believe knew some kind of martial arts or fighting style. The thing with bullies is that they’re just another facet of cowardice.

Many bullies only want to talk loud and tough but don’t want to fight. Some only pick on people they feel won’t fight back. And many others are only tough as part of a group but lose their nerve on their own. They felt comfortable trying to bully him when they were being backed up by others. But when he called them out to fight it was a different story. The bullying stopped after he tossed a couple of people around and emerged victoriously.

Having relocated from the South when he did, Battle came to New York with fresh eyes and lived in the city during a pretty interesting time in American history. Black people had been living in New York as there had been White people in New York since before the Revolutionary War. But when Battle arrived in New York City it was in the early days of the Great Migration. Harlem, in particular, had yet to become the Black Mecca of later years.

Slowly, but surely you read about him moving through the different neighborhoods and making his way to Harlem and later the Bronx. His journey charted the migration of Black people from various parts of Lower Manhattan north as they were forced out of some neighborhoods and moved in search of adequate housing. Some of these neighborhoods would become predominantly Black and Hispanic but his family was sometimes among the first Black families to move into these areas.

I was born and raised in New York City and think of New York as being a large metropolis. But Harlem has only been around for about 120-130 years. At one point, Harlem was like the suburbs and the Bronx was like the country. Though to be fair for quite some time most people lived in lower Manhattan like below 14th or 23rd Street, Midtown north to about the Upper West Side was farmland, and beyond that was wilderness.

As Battle’s career unfolds, he spends years moving through and at times up in the department. Telling his history branches out to other areas, because it’s affected by political changes, changes within the police department, and general historical events. During World War I, Black soldiers were pushing for inclusion in the military. But he also lived through the Red Summer, the Jazz Age, and the roaring 20s. There are all of these different eras seen through the life and career of this one man.

These are topics that I’ve learned about in school in classes about American history. But touching on these events while telling Battle’s life story and how he and his family were personally affected made the events feel more relatable. Honestly, some of these moments from history felt a lot more exciting being told through the life of this individual in comparison to just a generic telling of this history that typically doesn’t focus on or feature any one individual. Yet, to be honest at certain points it felt like there was a bit too much being covered and too much going on.

One of my favorite parts of One Righteous Man was when Battle was living in Harlem shortly after World War I during the Harlem Renaissance. He was still a young man at that time and was out and about. Reading about him meeting and rubbing shoulders with these other young Black people, some were just getting started in their careers but would go on to become legends was cool. To then have jazz mixed in sounded like an incredible time and a cool vibe. I still like the vibe of Harlem in the present and this is even after it’s been watered down a bit by gentrification. It’s modern but its historic past is still in view. If you walk the neighborhood, the vibe is different but still there.

While reading I couldn’t help but think that this could be incredible if adapted as a miniseries or multi-season show. I feel like it wouldn’t work as a 2-hour movie because there are way too many characters and too much stuff going on. Sure you get the story of Battle’s life but to give context there are these little brief biographies of some of the other people he interacts with.

This also occurs with important figures of the time that he might not have direct contact with but whose actions and decisions have an impact on his life and/or career. One Righteous Man is an immersive book that gives you a feel for what it was like to be alive at this time. Especially, moving through the streets and navigating these organizations and social codes as a Black man.

Much of One Righteous Man is about Samuel Battle’s time within the police department and his investigation of different crimes. Diving into different scandals and major cases of the time was very interesting. A large part of the reason that activists of that time were pushing for Black men to join the police department and other organizations was the hope that it might lead to more fair and equal treatment for Black citizens. But I found myself feeling a bit pessimistic because some of the issues and problems of that time are still present now.

There was an ongoing hostile relationship between the police and Black communities. Multiple examples are given which describe the police brutalizing Black people. But there are also instances of Black citizens fighting back. There was a lot of racial strife during the time which on occasion took a very violent turn. Battle experiences some of this rising through the ranks in the department. But after kind of being hazed and paying his dues, he was begrudgingly accepted into the department.

In part, how he did this was by coming to the aid of a White officer who had gotten into a confrontation with some Black residents. He essentially saved that officer’s life which earned him some goodwill with the other police officers at which point they began to leave him alone. Initially, some Black people admired and cheered him on because they took a lot of pride in him being a Black police officer.

Unfortunately, conflicts between these communities and police officers continued and sometimes Battle joined the fray. In time, some residents came to view Battle and the other few Black officers that had joined the force as being if not traitors then members of this brutal organization that terrorized them and their neighborhoods. So where at first they were regarded, at least within some quarters, as being heroes this changed as the brutality continued.

Part of the problem was that at the time an often used method for attempting to get an individual or situation under control was to beat the hell out of the individual or group. At the first sign of a possible situation, the immediate response was to become aggressive and physical. Battle had achieved notoriety within the Black community but then participated in these aggressive methods of enforcing the law. He was then seen as part of the problem by some members of the Black community.

There was and is an issue where when an accused person is Black, they can be handled aggressively and brutally by White or Black officers. But this didn’t work the other way around. Not to say it never happened but White officers were not being as aggressive with White suspects. And Black officers then certainly weren’t being aggressive with White suspects. This was because White officers patrolled Black neighborhoods but Black officers like Battle were not being assigned to patrols in White neighborhoods. There was some shock and discomfort with him arresting White suspects.

It can be incredibly difficult to bring about change and people are sometimes overly optimistic about what they might be able to achieve from within an organization or system. The reality is that by joining the organization or becoming a part of the system, you’re at risk of being tasked with upholding the status quo. If you’re one individual, especially the first fill-in-the-blank, you likely won’t have enough clout or connections to bring about change on your own. And in time you might be less inclined to rock the boat if being a part of the system has allowed you to achieve some degree of financial comfort and/or social privilege. This is especially true if your livelihood now depends on you holding onto your position.

Battle began with good intentions and did quite a bit of good along the way. Early in his career, he was ostracized by White society and the White officers in the department. But he was eventually somewhat accepted into the fold. That in turn drove a wedge between him and the Black community. That’s not to say that during or even by the end of his career that Black people hated him but rather that a sizeable portion of the Black community regarded him with distrust. By the end of One Righteous Man there was a bit of a reversal.

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