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'One Righteous Man': Arthur Browne on the struggle of the NYPD's first black officer

Samuel Battle, left, with Lino Rivera, center, a

Samuel Battle, left, with Lino Rivera, center, a youth whom Harlem residents believed to have been killed by police, sparking race riots in 1935. From Arthur Browne's new book, "One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York" (Beacon Press, July 2015). Credit: New York Daily News / Bill Meurer

ONE RIGHTEOUS MAN: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York, by Arthur Browne. Beacon Press, 318 pp. $27.95.

Once upon a time, one good man seemed enough. These days, the NYPD is looking for more. Leaders say the police department needs to expand its African-American membership, which now comprises roughly 15 percent of the 34,631-member force. The reasons for this aren't obscure, given recent events such as the battle over stop and frisk and last year's death of Eric Garner from an apparent chokehold. But over a century ago, things were much worse between the city's whites and blacks than they are today. And nobody in power seemed at all interested in hiring even one African-American cop.

But, kicking and screaming, they did. And while it wasn't easy for Samuel Jesse Battle to win respect from his peers, his toughness, integrity and ramrod composure would make him the perfect man to cool down a race riot in 1935 by searching for and finding a dark-skinned Puerto Rican boy whom Harlem residents mistakenly believed to have been killed by police.

You can find many such stories in "One Righteous Man," Arthur Browne's biography of Battle, whose perspective on the city's social and political history is presented with the kind of dogged, unassuming intrepidness that is perfectly aligned with its subject. Indeed, Browne's book is so conscientious about placing Battle's groundbreaking achievement within the tumult of early to mid-20th century New York that at times it's possible to lose sight of Battle himself.

Yet Battle's resolute persona holds its own in this book, as it did in life -- even with competition from a colorful cast of characters that includes Theodore Roosevelt, Jack Johnson, Dutch Schultz, Fiorello LaGuardia and Langston Hughes and such all-but-forgotten African-American personages as editor-publishers Timothy Thomas Fortune and Fred R. Moore and the legendary "Chief" James Williams, head of Grand Central Depot's "redcaps," whose son Wesley made his own bruising but ultimately triumphant advancement through the ranks of the city's fire department.

Browne, award-winning editorial page editor of the New York Daily News, shows the voraciousness of someone totally enraptured with the city's history in providing a detailed historical context for Battle's migration from his native North Carolina to New York at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, the city's racial divide was about as wide as it had been during the Civil War "draft riots" in which white New Yorkers randomly attacked and murdered dozens of blacks. The racism hadn't eased much in the years before Battle, after working various odd jobs, finally won appointment to the NYPD in 1911.

Beginning with the chilly, impregnable silence he received from white officers, Battle would have to navigate his way through police ranks that, with few exceptions, were openly hostile and blithely corrupt. The dark machinations of Tammany Hall receive as detailed a rendering in "One Righteous Man" as the excitement and tribulations of life in Harlem (which Battle and his family called home) during its 1920s cultural "renaissance" and its decline into Depression-era poverty, crime and race riots. Through his 40-year career, Battle resisted bribery, rage or recrimination, eventually winning the respect of his peers and the close acquaintanceship of such influential powerhouses as Mayor LaGuardia, who appointed him to the city's Parole Board in 1941. He died in 1966 at age 83.

Browne's book finishes a task originally assumed by Hughes, whose efforts to ghostwrite Battle's life story in the late 1940s is told in chapters interspersed within the larger, more meticulously detailed biographical narrative. The manuscript was finished in 1952 and rejected by publishers who deemed that the Hughes-Battle collaboration resulted in little more than "finely realized vignettes," Browne writes. Ironically, it is in excerpts from that unpublished book, especially those rendered in Battle's own voice, that the hero of "One Righteous Man" becomes a more vivid presence -- especially in anecdotes of his childhood; of his early, lonely years on patrol in remote parts of the city; and of meeting such idols as Jesse Owens and Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Battle, after several cordial encounters, declared "the grandest woman living today."

Battle's genuine voice comes through strongest in this simple declaration: "I would rather have honesty and character than prestige and wealth. I can walk and ride the streets of this city, hold my head up, look all men in the face."

Police departments aren't the only places that could use more like this man.

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