What I am about to confess I remember on a day in summer at the start of the ’60s, when I was a boy of nine or ten or eleven. I know exactly where I was, and although I cannot pinpoint the date, I can say for sure that I was very wrong.
I was in the backyard of my family’s home in Freeport, a village on Long Island about 30 miles east of New York City and a world from the Brooklyn that my parents had left in 1952 in search of a countrified upbringing for three children.
Almost every house overflowed with kids. In that time, an era long before organized activities, parents simply ordered children to go out and play. We would disappear for hours, the necessity of finding something to do leading boys into often-dangerous misadventures, as well as into using the tools we had seen our fathers use.
On this one day, alone for reasons unknown, I began to build a kids’ clubhouse out of scrap wood, a handsaw, a hammer, and nails. Other guys arrived on bikes and pitched in. We were hard at work when my mother gave me the chore of the family’s weekly food shopping.
My mother was a formidable woman who could walk on her hands and could defeat my friends in arm wrestling through junior high. She gave me a grocery list, told me to ride my bicycle, equipped with a newspaper boy’s delivery basket, to the supermarket and handed me a $20 bill.
Twenty dollars was then an enormous sum, particularly for a family whose father passed through periods of unemployment.
“Be careful with this, and bring back the change,” my mother ordered.
Off I pedaled, filled a shopping cart at the market, had the clerk ring up the items on a mechanical cash register—and then discovered that I had lost the $20 bill. It was not to be found in the store, or outside, where I had locked my bike, or anywhere along the route home. What was I to do?
I went home without the groceries and made up a story that I had been robbed.
I made up a story that I had been robbed by a teenager, but not by any teenager.
I made up a story that I had been robbed by, using the word of the times, a Negro teenager.
No one would have believed a tale that a white teen had stolen the money, but I knew that the people around me would accept black criminality.
I knew because Freeport was strictly segregated, blacks east of Main Street, whites west of Main Street. White crossed to the east to drive to a parkway entrance. I don’t remember blacks ever crossing to the west, or shopping in Main Street’s central business district, or sitting at the counter of Viebrock’s, a classic soda-fountain restaurant.
Many of the adults surrounding me openly used the N word, so did my friends and I. We chose up teams for games with a rhyme that began, “Eeenie, meenie, miney, moe, catche a n——- by the toe.” While I remember queasiness in my gut, I, too, may have used the term more generally—although my mother forbade it in our house and insisted that everyone be treated with respect. I spoke to her before her death about many aspects of our family’s life, but not about her racial attitudes. I wish I had.
When neighborhood parents spoke of blacks, they often laughed that Negroes worked on the village sanitation trucks and that many had conked hair. Some spoke of belonging to a group they called SPONGE, the Society for the Prevention of N——— Getting Everything. Blacks were people to be feared.
Falling victim to a scamp’s talent for convincing adults of just about anything, my mother did what she had to: She called the police. Two detectives drove me through Freeport’s black neighborhood so that I could point out anyone who looked like the imaginary robber. Secure in believing that I had gotten away with losing the $20, I pointed out no one. The detectives dropped me off and I returned to building the clubhouse.
Minutes later my brother, two years younger than I, ran across the yard, holding the $20 bill and calling out, “Mommy, look what I found in the grass.”
Before I could intercept him, he was into the house and I was left to meet my fate. My mother flew through the backdoor and off a porch in a cotton dress, holding a doubled-over strap in her right hand. With her left, she grabbed my hair, dragged me around the yard and whaled the backs of my thighs, naked beneath my shorts. Then she ordered me to ride to the police station and admit my lie. I did, and the giant-looking, uniformed white men behind the desk harshly reprimanded me for filing a false report.
But no one took exception to my racism.
Although I have often thought back to that summer’s day, often after a white had falsely accused a black person of a crime after assuming the claim would have credence, I have kept the episode largely secret out of shame. I did tell my four children as they came of age, both as an object lesson in the imperative for honesty and as an illustration of how subtly cancerous racial attitudes can be.
More recently, I relived the actions of ten-year-old me as I researched and wrote One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York, a biography of New York’ s first African-American police officer, who joined the force in 1911.
In 2009, New York City ceremonially named the corner of Harlem’s Malcolm X Boulevard and 135th St. Samuel Battle Plaza, thanks to community historian Jacob Morris, who had known that Battle had broken the NYPD color line, and who had also known that, after eight tough years on the force, Battle had heroically saved a white cop from a black mob bent on murder at the intersection.
An article in the Daily News, where I have worked for most of my career, called Battle the NYPD’s Jackie Robinson. I sensed an untold New York story, never imagining how monumentally consequential a life Battle had lived, never anticipating the painful examination of conscience that was soon underway.
Biography is in many respects timeline in context.
On my timeline, in 1960 I was an ever-in-trouble ten year old, who was steeped in racism, yet who would perhaps have known a little better had I listened to my mother.
On Battle’s timeline, in 1960 he was futily struggling to publish a first-person life story written by Langston Hughes, whom he had paid $1,500 for the service. Battle was also sitting for an interview by Columbia University’s Oral History Project, knowing that his remarkable accomplishments were being written out of history.
I learned in the match of the two chronologies that I had been reared in a self-congratulating society in the North, where moral certitude reinforced domination over blacks, more insidiously than in the South and only degrees less oppressively. I was an embryo in a culture of “majoritarian pigs” to borrow a phrase from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new memoir Between the World and Me.
I also wrestled more seriously than I ever had before with the role that unconscious racial assumptions can play in extending history-based injustices and social afflictions.
Reading the narrative produced by the doomed partnership of Samuel Jesse Battle and James Langston Hughes forced a reckoning with the truths that, even in “liberal” New York, racism was far more overt and far more rigidly enforced than many would like to believe, and that, substantial progress notwithstanding, the psychic disease of whiteness and blackness still takes its toll.
To consider one example, for many decades and until very recently, African Americans represented only 3 percent of the New York City Fire Department’s ranks. The sense of exclusion prompted successful federal litigation over the fairness of civil service tests, along with recruitment drives that appear to be having a beneficial impact.
While the controversy centered on merit as gauged by the tests—with whites saying they welcomed “qualified” African Americans—a forgotten past had planted the seeds for modern attitudes across the skin-color divide.
Well into the ’40s, the city’s firehouses maintained Jim Crow beds in dormitories where firefighters slept while waiting for alarms. Black beds were often beside the toilet, with the apartheid tacitly accepted by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Bad memories lingering long and lore being persuasive, many African Americans could naturally view the FDNY as a closed career path.
At the same time, casting away the personally irrelevant as trivia, a white firefighter could naturally conclude that he or she made it onto the force on a level playing field that was too tough for some and could just as naturally reject guilt-tripping for whatever may have happened before he or she was born.
Black progress in America is measured now most objectively in statistics about earnings, school achievement, police shootings, incarceration rates, and the like. But the speciousness of the country’s movement toward post-racialism cannot be captured accurately by even the most sophisticated polls, because it is too easy to retreat into avoidance while relishing removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. Witness the finding of a New York Times poll that almost six in ten Americans, large majorities of blacks and whites, believe that race relations are generally bad.
In amnesia, especially prevalent in the North, there is comfort.
Although Battle was both a good and a great man, he was a black man hemmed in by all the limitations imposed upon African Americans. Yet he was among the anomalous few who succeded as much as any of the race could have succeeded. How?
From a young age, when he refused to accept a white man’s whipping, Battle insisted on dignity at all times from everyone.
He matured to join an American civil rights movement before America knew America had a civil rights movement.
The son of former slaves, he prevailed over ostracism, threats, an attempt to trap him into a career-ending sexual liaison with a white woman, and the gawking of tourists who paid to see him, because he knew, as his friend Eleanor Roosevelt would one day write, “that he was fighting not for himself alone but for his people.”
Finally, his success depended on prodigious intelligence, physical strength, and courage that whites had to respect, and a deep reservoir of Christian faith.
As he approached death in 1966, verging on oblivion, Samuel Jesse Battle looked forward to a brighter future for African-Americans than a barely awakening 16-year-old Arthur Joseph Browne gave him cause to. His optimism remains to be fully fulfilled.
For starters, America and New York City—a city that barred Negroes from its police force and whose commissioner, Bill Bratton, today applies a fresh commitment to recruit black officers—owe far greater official recognition to Battle as a civil rights icon and role model than a largely unnoticed sign on a Harlem street corner that, by extending amnesia, grants absolution to inaction.
Arthur Browne, winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize, is editorial page editor of the New York Daily News. He is the author of One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York, which is published by Beacon Press.