‘Darktown’ Reveals What It Was Like For Atlanta’s First Black Policemen

In 1948, eight African-American men joined the Atlanta police force. They could not drive squad cars, step foot in police headquarters, or arrest white citizens. They are the inspiration for Thomas Mullen's new novel, Darktown. Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center
In 1948, eight African-American men joined the Atlanta police force. They could not drive squad cars, step foot in police headquarters, or arrest white citizens. They are the inspiration for Thomas Mullen’s new novel, Darktown.
Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

In 1948, Atlanta added eight black men to its police force. This was at a time when, as author Thomas Mullen explains, a 1947 Newsweek article “estimated that one-quarter of Atlanta policemen were, in fact, members of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Those pioneer police officers were the inspiration for Mullen’s new novel, Darktown — a blend of history, mystery and violence that explores racial tensions in post-World War II Atlanta.

Today, the city is known as one of the most progressive in the South. Proudly dubbed “The City Too Busy to Hate,” it never erupted into the racial violence that made other large Southern metropolises infamous.

But the city wasn’t too busy to keep its African-American citizens in their assigned “place.” Small wonder that the decision to incorporate a handful of black rookies into the APD caused such uproar.

Knowing there would be stiff, maybe violent, resistance to the rookies’ presence, Chief Herbert Jenkins assigned them a separate space. Instead of working from police HQ, the black officers, under the oversight of a white captain, were relegated to the basement of the local colored YMCA. “The mayor and police chief of Atlanta were worried that if black men in uniform showed their faces in headquarters, the white cops would riot and attack them,” Mullen says.

The eight were sometimes likened to the police equivalent of Jackie Robinson, who’d made national headlines the year before as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

And like Robinson, Mullen says, they worked under incredible restrictions. They had to ignore racial taunts and abuse. They couldn’t let their tempers flare. They were issued guns and badges — reluctantly — but they couldn’t do much with them:

“They could only patrol the back neighborhoods; they weren’t supposed to set foot in the white parts of town,” Mullen says. “They couldn’t drive squad cars; they had to walk their beat with a partner.”

And perhaps worst of all, they couldn’t arrest white people, Mullen explains. Even when crimes were committed right in front of them, the black rookies had to call for white assistance.

In the beginning of Darktown, a young black woman is killed, and two of the new policemen — against orders and on their own — decide to investigate her death. Mullen says being both black and a policeman was sometimes agonizing: these men walked a razor-thin line:

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Source: NPR | KAREN GRIGSBY BATES