Five African-American men made history on September 1, 1944, when they were sworn in as the first Black police officers in the Miami Police Department. However, unlike their White counterparts, Ralph White, Moody Hall, Clyde Lee, Edward Kimball, and John Milledge were referred to as “patrolmen” rather than “officers.”
They were sent to the “Central Negro District,” which encompassed sections of Liberty City and Colored Town, dubbed “Overtown” by locals. According to NBC Miami, they were “forced” to function out of a dentist’s office until the Black police precinct and courthouse was established in 1950, resulting in a distinct and segregated headquarters.
The Second World War was coming to a conclusion at the time the five patrolmen were sworn in. Many Black troops returned to Miami after serving in the war, resulting in a rise in the city’s Black population. The city’s Black population surpassed 43,000 in 1944. According to a study from PANACHE Magazine, the majority of them lived in the Central Negro District, once known as “Colored Town.”
As Miami’s population swelled during Jim Crow, there were fewer white officers patrolling the streets, especially in Liberty City and Overtown, owing to the dread of entering these Black neighborhoods. During this time, leaders of the newly formed Negro Citizens League advised the city that a Black police presence would be required.
According to PANACHE Magazine, the city listened, and Don D. Rosenfelder, Director of the Public Safety Department in charge of police services, began hiring the first Black police officers by asking Black leaders to nominate applicants. Because Whites were opposed to the idea of training Black officers during segregation, it was done “under extreme secrecy.”
The “first five” of Miami, Lee, Hall, Kimball, Milledge, and White, were also sworn in secretly. “They weren’t bitter, they were grateful for their life experience,” Terrance Cribbs-Lorrant, the director of a museum in Overtown that celebrates the tale of the five Black officers, told NBC Miami.
According to NBC Miami, these five guys were not authorized to arrest White persons out of segregation, “even if a crime was happening directly in front of them.” They couldn’t operate out of the main Miami Police Station, so instead of using automobiles, they patrolled by strolling and riding bicycles. According to the South Florida Times, detained prisoners were transported to jail on bicycle handlebars or by strolling and catching rides from locals.
Furthermore, the five guys had no radio contact and were unable to appear in court in their uniforms. Additionally, there was no job security or retirement benefits.
After a year, the number of Black patrolmen had increased to 15, and they were assigned to Coconut Grove’s historically Black neighborhoods.
“The men were assigned a set route to travel between Overtown and Coconut Grove that would prohibit them from engaging with Whites as much as possible,” according to PANACHE Magazine. They were told to clear clogged walkways, prohibit all gambling and swearing, seize firearms, and stop and frisk suspicious people or known troublemakers. As a result, violent crimes in Black neighborhoods dropped by half.”
On November 1, 1946, Milledge became the first Black officer to be murdered in the line of duty. Others could watch how the department changed over time, notably when it was integrated in 1963. Today, the historic Black Precinct and Courthouse Museum commemorate the history of Miami’s “first five” African-American police officers who paved the way for African-Americans in law enforcement.