Black in Blue

More than 50 years ago, five daring young men put on police uniforms and began patrolling Miami's "Colored Town." A couple of them are still looking for justice.

Tension was so high in 1938 that Father Culmer was compelled to send a letter not to the police department but to white citizens groups, a Miami ministerial alliance, and the media, pleading for help. The letter took the form of a formal petition and began: "Whereas Policeman R.B. (Schoolboy) Simpson has figured in three killings of colored citizens within the past seven months ..." After outlining the community's complaints about Simpson, Culmer laid out the explosive potential of the situation: "We seriously fear that such a general attitude of fear and hatred against an officer of the law may eventually result in disturbing the peace and harmony of the races." The missive concluded: "Your petitioners are peace-loving, law-abiding citizens who offer this prayer because they believe that the continuance of Officer Simpson in this community will be to countenance the aggravation of an already unhappy situation for one-fourth of Miami's population."

But despite such efforts, it wasn't until World War II -- when a shortage of men also enabled women to enter the workforce -- that blacks finally got their chance. Under a Miami ordinance, the city manager could appoint policemen in a national emergency without approval of the city commissioners or the police chief, and Miami needed more police. Colored Town's leaders were told to submit the names of upstanding young men for a small squad of patrolmen.

In 1944 Ralph White, 28 years old, worked as a civilian shipping agent at the Opa-locka Naval Air Station. "I'd never dreamed of being a black police officer," says the soft-spoken White, who remembers his surprise when a black army captain named James Scott approached him with the proposal. Scott was superintendent of the Liberty City housing project where White lived and often volunteered as a security guard.

Back then, Edward Kimble (or "Tops," as he was known) was a tall, athletic, 21-year-old baseball and football star who had returned to Miami from Clark University in Atlanta after receiving his draft notice, just "to play with the girls one last time" before war called. (He received a draft deferment in exchange for undergoing police training.)

The Liberty City project's community center served as the training site for fifteen men -- their number was quickly winnowed to five -- who were schooled quietly, to avoid controversy with racist white politicians and police officials. A white sergeant led the drills. Today Kimble's eyes narrow at the memory of Raymond Tanner, whom he recalls as a fat man with the ability to knock back inordinate amounts of whiskey. "He was white and you were black, and everything he did was right and everything you did was wrong," Kimble says bitterly.

After six weeks of training in first aid and police procedures, the five were sworn in as patrolmen in front of the office of Dr. Ira Davis, a prominent Colored Town dentist. A document sent by the city manager to Ralph White on that day read: "I hereby appoint you an emergency Policeman for the duration of the present National Emergency in the Police Division of the Department of Public Safety of the City of Miami, Florida, effective as of September 1, 1944."

The importance of the ceremony was not lost on the hundreds of residents who assembled to witness it. "Black people had waited all their lives to see that," Kimble recalls. The crowd followed the men down Second Avenue in an impromptu parade. "We were proud that first day to see them walk their beat," says Sonny Armbrister, who, as a sixteen-year-old, was among the onlookers. "They were like our saviors."

The five new policemen were instant celebrities in the community, their various personalities discussed around dinner tables. "Kimble was flamboyant," says Armbrister, who would grow to know the men well through his work as a neighborhood barber. "And Ralph White was a real gentleman."

For the first few months, the patrolmen operated out of Dr. Davis's office at 1036 NW Second Ave. There they worked from one small room before moving to a larger space in an alley behind a pool hall a few blocks away. They were paid the same as white policemen, $183 a month, and outfitted with the same guns and uniforms; but they weren't allotted squad cars and covered their beats only at night and on foot. Later that year the department gave them bicycles on which to make their rounds.

In the tight-knit society of Colored Town, the patrolmen knew the back alleys and family ties essential for effective community policing. But not everyone was pleased to see them. Though major theft and murder were relatively rare, gambling, prostitution, and petty thievery were commonplace in Colored Town's thriving red-light district, called "Hardieville" after the sheriff who had driven similar white operations into the neighborhood.

"The first five days they wouldn't take the idea you could arrest them like the white cops," Kimble explains of the neighborhood toughs who ran the dice games that proliferated on the streets. "Just ask for an ID and you'd have to fight. I lost ten to fifteen uniforms. But I was young and strong, and I'd bust your ass -- they found out in a hurry."

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