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.

Only later would he learn that his role had in fact been facilitated by one of the more notorious criminals in Colored Town. James Byrd, dark-skinned and with a knot on his forehead, wore overalls and carried a long-barreled pistol, according to Kimble. A jitney driver by trade, he also ran craps and numbers. "I came through like MacArthur -- only now I know it wasn't just me," Kimble says. "Byrd was a bad, bad man, but he took a shine to me 'cause I was a ball player."

Months later, Kimble says, he came upon Byrd in the middle of a crowd, his gun cocked against the temple of a man begging for his life. Byrd explained to the young patrolman that the man had shot loaded dice in one of his crap games. Kimble pleaded for the cheat's life. "Don't shoot him, James," he recalls saying. "The days of the avenue and the shootouts are all over."

Indeed, both crime and street justice declined through the efforts of the black policemen. In that first year, they made 4326 arrests, resulting in fines of $56,321. Within six months the Colored Town force had grown to fifteen. Although authorized to arrest only blacks, the patrolmen could detain whites until white officers came to make the official arrests. It was an opportunity Kimble says he relished. "If I caught a white guy after 2:00 a.m., boom, I would arrest him, put the cuffs on him, and pin him to the telegraph post," he says. "I'd call downtown and tell them, 'We got a white guy in the red-light district.' See, but he'd have to wait two hours before they got to him, at which point he'd be robbed 90 times and be scared to death he was going to get killed."

Pioneers often owe their success to patience and forbearance as much as passion. But Tops Kimble was young and brash. He'd been told that after six months' probation, the black patrolmen would receive civil service status, and he began to press white authorities at the end of the period to make him a permanent policeman. "I got angry because I knew we were on shallow ground," he explains. "We could be fired for no reason." That fear turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When he complained once too often, he was called into a sergeant's office and put on indefinite suspension. "He didn't give no reason," says Kimble, still indignant more than 50 years later. "They ran it the way they wanted to. I stood up for my rights and got fired."

Kimble left Miami to join the Negro baseball leagues, where he barnstormed for a couple of years across the nation as an outfielder for the New York Black Yankees, playing against legendary black stars such as Satchel Paige, whom he calls "a great ball player and a no-good liar." Today Kimble's walk has slowed and his sight is weakened by a heart attack and a series of strokes, but he still fantasizes about taking the City of Miami to court for the wrong done to him half a century ago.

Because white officers refused to allow blacks to join their own police organization, in 1946 the nineteen Colored Town patrolmen formed the Miami Colored Police Benevolent Association (MCPBA). It was a forum by which to campaign for equal rights in the police department; the battles would last for 30 years, with the white establishment fighting every step of the way. Whether it was sirens for the cars or admission to the police academy, nothing came without a struggle. "Everything was done to try to belittle you, to denigrate you so that in the end you wouldn't feel good about yourself," remembers one of the early patrolmen.

The black police received civil service status only after one of the first five patrolmen, John Milledge, died in the line of duty. On November 1, 1946, Milledge sent a group of loitering youngsters packing in the course of walking his beat. One of the boys, seventeen-year-old Leroy Strachan, went home to retrieve his rifle. He returned and killed Milledge with a single shot to the throat, then fled. The case attracted widespread media attention 44 years later, in 1990, when a dogged Miami police detective tracked him down in New York City. With legendary radical lawyer William Kunstler to represent him, Strachan pleaded guilty and received probation.

The Miami Police Department hired Lury Bowen, a black World War II veteran, in June 1948 as a temporary undercover officer. His original assignment: Find Colored Town's gambling rooms, prostitution houses, and moonshine factories, and inform white authorities downtown of the locations. His superiors gave him strict orders: Don't go to the black precinct offices, and don't tell the other black patrolmen your job. It seemed odd at the time, he says, but it took awhile for Bowen to grasp that his job was to locate illicit establishments for the white cops to shake down. He would go into the old numbers shops like the KY or the Redhouse and try to place a bet, then contact his white lieutenant, who would arrange to meet him the following day to get the information.

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