The Black Patrolmen of 1940s Memphis


Adelaide Hudson was visibly pregnant. The police officer beat her anyway.

In front of neighbors in her South Memphis public housing complex, a law enforcement officer struck Hudson with the stock of a BB gun, breaking her rib and sending her to the hospital. He had been in search of Hudson’s teenaged nephew, who was alleged to have shot and grazed a girl with a pellet.

Hudson’s infraction was not referring to the officer as “sir” when police entered her apartment. After she was released from care, she was found guilty of disorderly conduct.

Hudson’s treatment was egregious, but by no means unusual. At the time of the event in August 1947, tensions between black citizens and white patrolmen were at an all-time high. Memphis was home to minorities increasingly incensed at the racially-motivated behavior of public officials; authorities hid their prejudice with false testimony. When Eli Blaine lost an eye to a brutal police assault in 1948, his attackers claimed he fell out of a car.

A photograph of Blaine’s mangled, bandaged face ended up on the cover of Memphis World, a newspaper with a mostly black circulation. More stories of victims followed. Protests grew louder; petitions grew longer. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) floated the possibility of lawsuits.

The Memphis Police Department would eventually assign nine black recruits to the force. But having a badge and having actual authority were two very different things.

Memphis political leader E.H. Crump had first tried to placate angry citizens by offering to build parks in neighborhoods populated by minorities. It was a condescending solution, and one that was rejected outright.

What he did not want to do was deputize any portion of the black population. But with the killing of James Mosby in 1948—a World War II veteran who was involved in a domestic dispute that police answered with an escalation of violence—the climate was not leaving him much choice.

It had been 70 years since black officers routinely patrolled the city, and that had only been because an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1878 either killed white officers or prompted them to flee. (Two black detectives were also appointed in 1919, but it was a shameless attempt to get votes and ended after only 6 months.) An infamous symbol of Southern intolerance, Memphis had subsequently developed a reputation as having a reckless police force. But by fall 1948, 51 locations across the South had integrated patrol officers in an attempt to reduce police violence. They could no longer fight the tide.

When police and fire commissioner Joseph Boyle agreed to open the precinct doors for black applicants in the fall of 1948, 160 prospects came calling. Of those, 13 were evaluated at the police academy, and nine made it to the street in uniform. (Three more were hired several weeks later.)

Boyle was no civil rights advocate, however, and equality was not something he was prepared to extend. The black officers were not allowed to change clothes at the main precinct, attend roll call, or even testify in court hearings. (They were allowed to carry firearms, but had to purchase the guns themselves.) Instead, they were installed under an informal “police your own” initiative, expected to walk the beat of black neighborhoods and curb impropriety like gambling, profanity, and prostitution.  

The officers were also prohibited from arresting whites, only detaining them, which meant that those responding to a call were sometimes dismissed by the complaining party with rolled eyes. Residents believed the officers to be impotent, a reality often enforced by tenured white officers who openly mocked and insulted their black counterparts.

One of the patrolmen, Jerry Williams, remembered his frustrations during a 2011 town meeting where he was honored for his service. At the time, it didn’t feel like such a privilege:

“…There were times when we had to give a traffic ticket to a white person and oftentimes, this white man would—he wanted to make sure that we knew he was white. He would stick his head out of the car to make sure that we knew he was white…We would call in from the beat every hour. So, this commanding officer at that time called me in and told me, he said, “Williams.” I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Did you give so and so a ticket down there on Beale and Hernando?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, I did’. He said, ‘I want to tell you, you give another white person a ticket, you won’t have this job any more.’”

Williams eventually made homicide detective, exhibiting a tenacity that ultimately exhausted the prejudiced officers on the force. Wendell Robinson, another of the original nine, received attention for helping to break up a con game. In 1965, he was promoted to lieutenant after scoring higher than anyone in the department on the exam. He retired in 1980.

A second “class” of black officers was hired on in 1951, but it wasn’t until the United States sued the city in 1974 over discriminatory hiring policies that their law enforcement truly began to evolve beyond racial boundary lines. Today, half of the city’s police force is made up of men and women of color. While it hasn’t eliminated racial discord on the force or in the city, the advancement toward that goal arguably began with the nine men who suited up in 1948—even if they had to do it outside the precinct. 

Additional Source: “Aldridge, Etc. vs. City of Memphis [PDF].”

NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]


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