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.

"They were just using us to find new places for graft," he says. Police headquarters hired dozens of black men to do the work. "Once we became known around, they would trump up charges to fire us," he says. Bowen lasted a year before the ax fell in the form of several petty charges, including making a superior officer wait too long. It took him eighteen months before an influential white man who shot dice in a friend's boardinghouse arranged for his rehire as a patrolman with full civil service protection. Today Bowen works at police headquarters downtown as a security guard and is nicknamed the "Greeter" for his effusive salutations.

In 1950 the city built the patrolmen the Eleventh Street police precinct station, dedicating the considerable sum of $60,000 for construction. Miami historian Chapman says the new precinct can be seen as a tacit admission by city authorities of the revenue the patrolmen reaped for Miami through fines. "They made bundles of money for the city," he explains. The station recouped the investment in its first year. "The newspapers of the day stated that in our first ten days, crime was better contained and there were more police services than the area had seen in ten years," says Ralph White, who continued on the force from his days as one of the first patrolman until his retirement in 1976.

The new precinct inaugurated a full complement of services, from bookings to a jail and judge exclusively for blacks. Lawson E. Thomas, an attorney for the NAACP, presided over the court as the first black jurist in the South since Reconstruction. Just as the patrolmen could arrest only blacks, Thomas heard only cases involving those of his own race. He generally pardoned first-time offenders and often worked late into the night although his position was part-time.

In the beginning, the precinct hierarchy consisted of black patrolmen and white officers -- a sergeant, lieutenant, and captain on each shift. "It was like a family, with the white lieutenants like fathers and the sergeants like older brothers," recalls one black patrolman. By 1955 the station housed 60 patrolmen out of a total of 380 police officers throughout the city. That same year all the black policemen petitioned for the opportunity to take the sergeant's exam. The city refused. The MCPBA then sued the city and won.

In light of the victory, the police department relented. But instead of allowing the men to became regular sergeants, the department created a special position: patrol sergeant, with its own exam. Just five slots were created, and openings became available only when white officers at the precinct retired or quit. Leroy Smith and Louis Duty both earned the rank of sergeant in 1955. Two years later Bowen joined them. "I took the exam three times before they let me pass," recalls Bowen, who still suspects that white authorities erased correct answers on his tests. "Each time they would say, 'You needed just one more question to pass.' I studied hard enough to be a general in the police department, and they always said, 'One more question.'" In 1957 Smith, who'd joined the force in 1950, asked to take a lieutenant's test. "They said, 'We don't have anything set up for you,'" he remembers. By 1962 he finally took the exam, only to be failed three times.

By this time pressure had grown from black patrolmen and young black leaders throughout Miami's black neighborhoods -- which included Coconut Grove and Liberty City -- to integrate Miami's police. But Father Culmer of St. Agnes and Dr. Davis, the dentist, initially fought the integration efforts, arguing that if the precinct station and court were closed, Colored Town would never receive the services and unbiased justice through integration that they had fought so hard to achieve during segregation.

White authorities waited until Culmer's death in 1963 to integrate the police force, closing the station and court and officially ending the experiment of a black precinct. The building remained open as a community center until 1978, when it was shuttered for good. But Leroy Smith is quick to point out that in its thirteen-year existence as a police precinct, not one protest or civil disturbance occurred in the Overtown neighborhood. "If we had a crime out there, nobody got off," he says proudly.

With more than 30 years of hindsight, many of those who advocated integration now concede they won a Pyrrhic victory. "We thought it would be good because we'd get better treatment, but we lost control of the community," says retired officer Otis Davis, who joined the force in 1958 and served as president of the MCPBA from 1970 to 1980. Integration of the police department also failed to produce the advancement for which many black officers had hoped.

In 1964 Smith finally passed the lieutenant's exam, earning a place on the list of candidates for available openings. If no positions opened up within two years, a candidate was required to repeat the entire process. In 1966 he made it under the wire when a white lieutenant retired. "They asked him to stay on," says Smith, "but he'd already bought a house in Georgia."

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