This is a picture of my great great great grandfather. He was the first Black police officer to retire from the force. I wrote this short story in his honor.
On Monday morning, several weeks after beginning his new role as patrolman, Moses got up, brushed his teeth, washed his face, and looked in the mirror as he slicked back the few strands of hair that covered his head. In the midst of his daily routine he took a moment to be thankful for how well his life was turning out. He was born into slavery and walked from North Carolina to New York City. He went from running from the law that would have taken him back into slavery to becoming the law in the North. Initially the North was not the land of opportunity that others seemed to think it would be. When he took the exam to become a police officer he did not know if they would actually accept him but when the letter came he could see his future clearly. He would work as a police officer until he retired and enjoy his old age with his pension.
He worked hard to support his family and keep the small home he was able to purchase on his police salary. It had three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen with enough room to put a table. It housed the seven people in his household. There were his three sons – Tyrone, Edmond, and Richard. There were his two daughters – Bobbi and Naomi. And there was his wife Nessa. He’d met Nessa in the North and all of his children were born free. His children would never know what it meant to be owned by man. They would be their own people with their own rights and freedoms he had the authority to protect. Moses was proud of the fact that his wife could remain at home to care for the children. He knew that many other Afro-American women spent their time taking care of White children while the young Afro-American children sometimes were left to raise themselves. Moses and Nessa were a team and the success of their children was their main goal.
But this August morning in 1912, his first full year as a patrolman, he braced for a day that he hoped would be no different from the rest. He worked for the 75th precinct that serviced the East New York area of Brooklyn. He lived right on the outskirts of the neighborhood as Afro-Americans who were doing well did not live that far away from Afro-Americans who were struggling.
East New York was one of the most dangerous parts of New York City but Moses was not easily intimated. Each day was a bit of a battle but he trusted his partner, Ernie. Moses never thought he would call a White person partner and he was certain Ernie had his own biases but they were still learning about one another, what to ask, what to expect, how much to trust. Moses not only had to think of what Ernie’s biases could be he also had to recognize his own biases. They both had been very respectful of one another while sticking to safe topics like sports and weather. Many days over the past couple of weeks they spent in silence as Moses got the feel for the community and adjusted to having a partner.
When it was time to park and walk the beat they made sure to stay close to one another but Moses often liked to find a moment to speak with the young Afro-American boys alone. He didn’t want to have to arrest them but oftentimes they left him no choice. He had to admit that the kids in East New York didn’t have a whole lot of options. There were more opportunities to steal, lie, and hurt others than there were to help them find jobs or at least hold their attention to keep them out of trouble.
As he walked Moses down the block, looking ahead while Ernie scanned his periphery he saw something that looked like a wallet lying on the ground about 70 feet ahead of him. He was headed in that direction when two young boys walked right up to the object, picked it up, and stood close together so Moses could not see what they did with it.
Moses whispered to Ernie and pointed in the boy’s direction, “I think they just picked up a wallet.”
Ernie’s eyebrows lifted and he turned towards the boys. “You sure?”
Now Moses wasn’t 100% certain but he made the decision to tell Ernie so he had already decided to catch up to the boys and find out. “I’d like to find out.”
The boys were happy with their find so they were not in a hurry to get where they were going so it was easy for Moses and Ernie to catch up with them. Pretty soon they were walking right beside them. Ernie was on the right side of one boy and Moses on the left side of the other.
“Hey, did you two find something back there?” Moses was careful not to call them boys. Even though they were boys he knew they might have taken it in a negative way and he didn’t want to provoke them. Either way he recognized the absolute shock in both of their faces when they looked into his brown eyes and thoroughly examined his mahogany skin that reminded them of a parent. But Moses could see their expression change to a bit of disgust as they came to the realization that he was a police officer like the White man standing with him.
“Are you a real cop?” The boy beside him asked. He already knew the answer but he wanted to express his disregard for his authority.
At this point Ernie responded. He knew that part of his role was to ensure that everyone respected Moses. “We both are. You heard him. Answer his question.”
Moses could tell from the smile that crossed over the boy’s face that he was going to lie. “I didn’t find anything.” He turned to his friend and asked, “Did you find something?”
The boy had the same smile on his face as if he was hiding something no one would ever be able to find. “I didn’t find anything. What makes you think we found anything?”
“So you don’t mind if we search you?” Ernie had read the sly smile as a lie just as Moses had.
“What? Right here?” The boys knew nothing of their rights but they preferred being searched in public than taken back to a police station.
Moses conducted the search. He patted down their legs, arms, the back and front of their chests and emptied their pockets. He found nothing. Things were exactly as they should have been. They didn’t have one cent between the two of them. Ernie and Moses let the boys go.
Moses felt like his eyes must not have been as good as he thought but the boys had bent down to pick something up. He had no idea where they could have hidden it but there was a stretch of time when he could not see what they were doing. He wished he could have asked them what they did without having to arrest them. The curiosity would plague him for weeks.
As the boys walked away the boy who had questioned his legitimacy as a police officer turned around when they were about 15 feet in front of Ernie and Moses, spit on the ground, and spoke loud enough for Moses to hear but not quite loud enough for everyone to hear, “Uncle Tom”.
Moses did not flinch. It was in that moment that Moses knew exactly what he had to face each day. He’d made a new allegiance to the law and the people who looked like him no longer saw him as just another Negro. His was a protector and a provider but in a class all of his own.