By Julius L. Jones
The history of African Americans on the Chicago Police Department (CPD) begins in 1871. The same year the Great Chicago Fire destroyed approximately three-and-a-half square miles of the city, leaving 100,000 people unhoused, James L. Shelton was appointed the first African American member of CPD. Since then, African Americans have served on the force continuously.
The history of African American police officers in Chicago has been one of struggles against racism and discrimination. Reconciling the long history of Chicago’s integrated police force with the maltreatment many African American policemen experienced is no small task. However, we do know that nearly one hundred years after Mr. Shelton became the first African American to join the CPD, police officers organized to fight racism within the police force and to end the mistreatment of members of the African American community by police officers.
During the first half of the twentieth century, African American police officers in Chicago struggled to significantly change the dynamics of the relationship between the community and the department. Racism kept the percentage of African American police officers in the single digits. As Simon Balto notes in his book Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago, there were 137 African American police officers in 1930, approximately two percent of the department. Furthermore, some African American police officers engaged in abusive and corrupt behavior, which eroded the confidence of many in the community.
On April 4, 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. As news of his assassination spread throughout the United States, more than one hundred cities descended into chaos—businesses were burned and looted, and hundreds of people lost their lives. In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley, in remarks that he later claimed were taken out of context, ordered police officers to shoot and kill anyone they caught in the act of looting. African Americans, both on the police force and within the community, responded by demanding change in the way they were treated by the CPD, leading police officers Edward “Buzz” Palmer, Renault Robinson, Curtis Cowsen, Willie Ware, Wilbur Crooks, and Jack Debonnett, with civilian Tom Mitchell, to establish the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League (AAPL) in September of that year.
I first became aware of the Chicago History Museum’s (CHM) AAPL collection, and this story, when I began working as the museum’s Digital Content Manager in 2017. As a part of my responsibilities, I managed our blog and we published a post by one of our archival volunteers, Robert Blythe, who had helped to process some outstanding portions of the collection. The collection documents the ongoing work of the AAPL as well as its education arm, the League to Improve the Community (LIC). The AAPL is perhaps best known for running a police brutality complaint line, allowing members of the African American community to document complaints of police brutality, which the AAPL then investigated.
I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the earliest members of the organization, including Howard Saffold, who served as president of the AAPL from 1972 to 1983. I discovered that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a targeted harassment campaign of those who joined AAPL immediately after the organization’s founding. The members suffered abuse and retribution, being assigned demeaning patrols as well as being written-up on dubious and false misconduct charges.
In 1970 the AAPL filed a lawsuit charging the Chicago Police Department with discriminatory practices in its hiring, assigning, and promoting practices. The lawsuit also alleged harassment and discriminatory treatment toward police officers who were AAPL members. The city attempted to intimidate and pressure them to drop the lawsuit by filing countersuits against Renault Robinson and Howard Saffold. The police department also continued to refuse to recognize the AAPL or to reform in any meaningful way.
For the next seven years, a series of additional lawsuits would be filed, creating a complex web of legal proceedings. With the legal process at a standstill, it soon became clear that the AAPL would need some help in their case against the CPD. In 1973 that help came when the United States Department of Justice sued the Chicago Police Department for discrimination and, perhaps more damaging, withheld funding through a recently established program that sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Chicago and other police departments in the United States. The 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which by 1970 sent nearly half a billion dollars to police departments annually. The law carried a provision that prohibited discrimination by police departments receiving funding.
Ultimately, the Federal Government and the AAPL successfully proved in court that the police department engaged in discrimination, and as a result the government withheld federal funding for the City of Chicago until the police department stopped discriminating. The city appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court did not hear the challenge, representing a legal victory for the AAPL. This victory forced CPD to reform its hiring and promotion practices, which resulted in the number of African American police officers increasing from fifteen percent in 1968 to forty percent a decade later.
While this story is well-known to many Chicagoans who lived through it, I wanted to do my small part to share this story with new generations. It struck me as particularly relevant given the national conversation about the persistence of acrimony between law enforcement and African American communities in cities across the United States, and the deaths of unarmed men and women during encounters with police. What, if anything, does the story of the AAPL have to teach us about the utility of efforts to reform policing today? To begin to answer this question, we at CHM have begun an initiative to collect the oral histories of AAPL members and support staff during the first decade of the organization’s existence, and I am grateful to be working with my colleagues Angela Solis and Julie Wroblewski, and to have had the support of interns Kristen Lopez, Rebecca Otto, and Julia Rossi. Our hope is that through this project, we can provide vital historical context for current conversations about the intersection of race and policing.
Julius L. Jones is a Curator at the Chicago History Museum, where he develops exhibition narratives, identifies materials to be added to the museum’s collection, conducts object and image research, and speaks to the public on a variety of historical topics. He is also a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at The University of Chicago, where his scholarly interests include twentieth-century United States Cultural and Social History, particularly the meanings of aspiration among racial and ethnic minorities.