ATLVault: Black police officers began patrolling Atlanta 75 years ago
Eight Black police officers began patrolling April 3, 1948.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Atlanta’s first Black police officers began patrolling the streets and neighborhoods around Auburn Avenue on April 3, 1948, 75 years ago.
They were Johnny Jones, Williard Strickland, John Saunders, W.T. Elkins, Robert McKibbens, H.H. Hooks, Claude Dixon and Ernest H. Lyons.
The author of seven books, three of Thomas Mullen’s historical novels are written in the timeframe of 1940s and 1950s Atlanta. “Darktown,” “Midnight Atlanta” and “Lightning Men” are historical fictional accounts surrounding those eight pioneers of modern-day Atlanta.
“This was a really big deal for the city for a lot of reasons,” Mullen said. “The community leaders had been asking for black cops for four years, for generations, really. And mayors are always put them off. But for a variety of reasons, it finally happened in ‘48.”
One of those reasons came in 1944 when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed all-White primaries, Mullen said.
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“So finally Black voters could vote in the Democratic primary, which at the time was during the primaries,” Mullen said, which were “really the only elections that mattered in the South at the time. It was the the so-called solid South that was voting for the Democratic Party because the South was united as Democrats against the Republican Party, because Abe Lincoln was a Republican.”
After prominent Black Atlanta civil rights leaders such as John Wesley Dobbs and Martin Luther King, Sr., had registered and delivered several thousand votes to Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield in his re-election bid, Hartsfield fulfilled a campaign promise: integration of the then-all White Atlanta police department.
“I was just really drawn to the human drama of what it must have been like for these men,” Mullen said. “On one hand, they’re police officers, they’re authority figures. They carry a badge and a gun and they’re tasked with enforcing the laws of the city of Atlanta. But at the same time, they’re second-class citizens because they are Black men in the Jim Crow South. They still can’t check a book out of the public library. They can’t use a public swimming pool. They can’t eat in most restaurants. They can’t ride in the front of the bus if a White person wants that seat.”
The officers were not allowed to dress in Atlanta’s police headquarters, but in the basement of the Butler Street YMCA, a block away from Auburn Avenue, which is still in operation.
”They weren’t allowed to wear the uniform to and from work,” Mullen said. “The city and the mayor didn’t want a lone Black man in a police uniform to be walking around. Part of the concern was that they would be attacked by angry White people to see this Black man in uniform. A lot of Black men returning from World War Two and a generation earlier from World War One, had been attacked, had been lynched and killed for daring to wear their Army uniform or their Navy uniform. So many White people in the South didn’t want to see that.”
“When the officers walked out of the Butler Street YMCA on their first day to begin their rounds, there were hundreds of people in front of the Y, many of whom would follow them around on their beats,” said David Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center.
“They only had arrest powers over Blacks,” Mullen said. “If they’re patrolling Black parts of town, surely they’re not going to see any white people, let alone any white lawbreakers. So they had to operate under all of these crazy Jim Crow restrictions that are just shocking to us today, but this is the world that they lived in and they had to make the best of it.”
Dixon’s footsteps were one of many that created a path for future generations.
“I think he was a great icon and I think a lot of police officers follow his role and the way he carried himself,” said Gary Booker, a former Atlanta police officer and Dixon’s son.
Booker served as an officer for more than 20 years after his father’s time with APD.
Dixon’s daughter, Garielle Booker-Parks, also put on an APD badge and served in the department for several years.
The Dixons said at the time police officers like their father were seen as heroes.
“The neighborhood was glad, the community, the church, everyone was glad to see the police officers and it should be that same way now,” Dixon’s other surviving daughter, Diane Dixon, said.
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