Black in Blue
At a little after 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 7, more than half a dozen City of Miami police cars are parked in front of an abandoned building on a quiet corner in Overtown. Boxed in by a Florida Power & Light substation, the structure at 470 NW Eleventh St. would seem an unlikely candidate for interest, criminal or otherwise.
A bland union of square and rectangle, its windows and doors are sealed with cinder blocks, cement, and plywood. Peeling paint and growing mold disfigure the faded white walls. Mounds of litter and an unkempt yard contribute to an image of long-term neglect.
Yet anyone old enough to have lived in what was known as "Colored Town" from 1950 to 1963 would recognize the now desolate corner as the site of the former Negro Police Precinct. Those whose memories stretch back further still can recall the dangerous times before Miami had black police officers, and one fine September day in 1944 when five carefully picked men changed all that forever.
On this day, more than half a century later, Overtown's St. Agnes Episcopal Church is hosting a celebration to honor both the pioneers of Miami's all-black police force and its rector's twenty years in the pulpit. The combination is a natural one for Overtown old-timers who remember the church's role in establishing the black police. As the men gather in front of the derelict building, the long history of struggle hovers like a ghost. Uniformed black police officers step from the squad cars. As they mill about in small groups, other vehicles drop off elderly men in suits who greet each other with the easy banter of old acquaintances. Among the elderly men are Edward Kimble and Ralph White, the last survivors of the city's first black police squad.
As early as 1903, black religious leaders and professionals had begun asking white authorities for their own police force in Colored Town -- the area from Fifth Street north to roughly Twenty-second Street and west to the railroad tracks at Seventh Avenue, and the only place in Miami nonwhites could legally reside.
Blacks argued they would do a better job if allowed to police themselves. They also hoped to curtail the violence that white policing of Colored Town produced. For when the white officers entered the area, they usually meted out brutality to criminal and victim alike.
Young Miami was very much a segregated Southern town. "It was understood that in the white community, blacks would be off the streets by dark," says Arthur Chapman, a University of Miami historian. The physical and economic segregation routinely boiled over into violence. Houses that sat too close to the edge of white Miami were dynamited. Black baby sitters were arrested if discovered in Colored Town with their white charges. Black taxi drivers were beaten by their white counterparts. A 1918 report by the state attorney general described midnight raids during which police would storm black homes, roust the occupants from bed, and levy fines.
By 1921 the Ku Klux Klan had arrived in Miami, and many police officers joined. "Everybody was in the Klan back then," says Chapman, whose family stretches back five generations in white Miami. "It was like being a member of church, although they won't admit it today."
The 1920s saw periodic riots sparked by police in Colored Town. In January 1926, for example, fourteen blacks attacked a white police officer in retaliation for a beating he dispensed after one of them had blocked his way. The following year a white patrolman died and at least six blacks suffered injuries during another street battle.
Not much had changed by the 1930s, when a young Edward Kimble lost one of his high school classmates to a random police attack. "White police had a tendency at that time to pull up to a bar and pick out somebody," he remembers grimly. "They'd take them to Dixie Park [now called Gibson Park] and beat the hell out of them." Kimble's classmate, a boy of slight build named Josh Brown, died after one such beating.
Black lobbying efforts for a Colored Town police force gathered momentum after 1934, when local ministers, inspired by the promise of New Deal federal funds to combat urban ills, rallied to expose the poverty and rampant tuberculosis in Good Bread Alley, which stretched from Twelfth to Fourteenth streets between Third and Fourth avenues and was so named (depending on the source) for either the aroma of cornbread wafting from the windows or for its well-known prostitution. At the head of those efforts was Father John E. Culmer, rector of St. Agnes Episcopal Church.
Miami's influential blacks and whites began to meet at local churches to discuss solutions for the Alley. And from those meetings they formed several interracial organizations. One of the most effective was the all-female Friendship Garden Club, which played an important role in pushing the idea of an all-black police force. Though the group was created to beautify Colored Town through organized plantings, it also provided a chance for the white wives of politicians, bureaucrats, and professionals to meet with distinguished women in the black community. "It was the wives pestering their men: 'Why are there no black policemen?'" Kimble says today.
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."
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.
"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."
Smith and the MCPBA would return to court to try to break the color barrier for his promotion to captain. In 1971 they won a lawsuit in federal court, resulting in a consent decree that automatically promoted by one rank all black Miami policemen who had served from 1944 to 1960. The city signed the decree but ignored it. "Nothing is given away down here," Smith reflects today. The plaintiffs refiled the lawsuit in 1974. In the wake of a second consent decree, the department appointed Smith major, a position that ranks higher than captain but is appointed, not the result of a promotion. "I didn't ask for the majorship," he says. "I just wanted them to give me my captainship." In 1985 Miami appointed its first black police chief, Clarence Dickson, who had integrated the police academy as its first black cadet in 1960.
The men milling around in the warm September sun line up along the curb when school buses arrive with the Miami Edison Senior High School marching band and the Florida Sunshine Band from St. John Baptist Church. The youngsters, dressed in full regalia of tassels and tall hats, file out and begin tuning their instruments. Soon the entire group, some 100 people, is parading north up Third Avenue to the glee of children and the curious stares of adults.
The crowd marches under several I-95 overpasses, winding past drug addicts and the homeless until they reach St. Agnes Episcopal Church on NW Third Avenue for a ceremony to honor the police officers and Father Richard Marquess-Barry's twentieth anniversary as rector.
The older police veterans and today's younger black officers file into the church. For most, the Colored Town of their youth is but a memory. Interstate 95 literally buried much of the area. Federally funded housing projects of the Sixties did the rest. "Urban renewal!" scoffs Rector Barry. "Nigger removal is what it ended up to be! What happened to Overtown is not the fault of black folk."
The heady optimism that pushed integration and large urban projects is rare on the streets of Overtown these days. Black leaders now find themselves fighting to rebuild a community that segregation first imposed on them. "Even after the police department integrated, we didn't progress -- we regressed," says Barry, who believes that part of the restoration of that community will come only with an understanding of the past. "It's important that we now define ourselves," he says. "Black folk have to stop letting other people define them." From his pulpit, Barry speaks in the cadences of the black church: "There has been no place where the contributions of black police have been noted in this city. You will not find us in the museum on Biscayne Boulevard."
Last month Barry and members of the MCPBA attended a Miami City Commission meeting to propose turning the old precinct house into a museum and community center. Upon their request, the city agreed to allow the MCPBA (the C now stands for community) to act as trustees for the building. Now they must search for funding to restore the structure and operate it as a museum. An advisory panel headed by Barry has applied for city and county grants to get the project under way. Barry says he hopes the center will help anchor even more ambitious projects to revitalize Overtown. The current president of the MCPBA, Sgt. A.J. Johnson, believes the museum could be a means to use old victories to stregthen Overtown for present challenges. As he puts it: "Something from the past to inspire the community for the future.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.