Samuel Battle led an interesting life in interesting times. Arthur Browne’s, “One Righteous Man” a biography of Battle, the first African American on the unified greater New York City police department impressive even though I had a few reservations about it. Born one generation away from slavery Battle grew as a bit of what would later be called a juvenile delinquent but managed to put that behind him as a young adult when he traveled to New York in search of opportunity. He found that the color of his skin meant that doors were shut to him in the north just as they were back home. Battle makes his own opportunities and after several underpaid dead end jobs he finds opportunity as a porter at Grand Central Station. With a secure job he finds a wife and starts to build a life. When the community comes looking for a candidate to become the first black man on the city police force he risks his security and takes the challenge. What he managed to achieve was so incredible that Langston Hughes was commissioned to write his biography.
Browne’s writing is clear and easy to read, like a popular history should be. My biggest concern was, is, could this be more memoir than history? The wealth of Browne’s sources seem to be Battle’s own words, Langston Hughes’ unpublished manuscript and an oral history project a graduate student recorded with Battle. Arthur Brown makes good use of these resources along with Harlem and city newspapers to flesh out not just Battle’s story but it seems, sanitized. It strikes me as disingenuous that the biggest problems Battle had integrating the police force was the silent treatment and sleeping in the attic. I suspect that the baton swinging cops of the 1910s would have been more actively outspoken. Browne includes the story of integrating Harlem and the New York City fire department along with Battle’s story. He also gives us a look at the wider story of African American history in the early 20th century whenever it is needed to fully comprehend the times.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the name dropping, if it is fair to call it that. If pressed I could come up with some people that don’t show up in Battle’s story but he managed to meet and get acquainted with such a range of celebrities and power brokers, from heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who did not tip, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who deeply impressed Battle by simply giving a glass of water to a black woman speaker at a benefit. That insight into the impact a small kindness can make alone made the book more than worth reading.