When Police Patrol First Stepped Across the Color Line


When Police Patrol First Stepped Across the Color Line
1898-1910: Dayton's First African-American Police Officers
--by retired Dayton Sgt. Steve Grismer
 
The Dayton Police Department was formed in 1867, only two years after the Civil War and four years after the Emancipation Proclamation.  It was officially established on May 29, 1873.  Two years later in March 1875, a black man was reportedly appointed to Dayton police force but dismissed from service in less than five months.  No other minority applicant would be hired until the 1890s.
 
Although the institution of slavery had ended, the second half of the 19th Century was entrenched with racial prejudice and suspicion (perpetuated into the following century).  The local Dayton community was segregated into a white society and a black society.  Newspapers did not classify white citizens in its news articles but were certain to identify a black citizen as Negro or “colored”.   It was into this way of life during last decade of the 19th Century – and 25 years after the formation of the Dayton police force – that an African-American man would uncharacteristically find his livelihood as a local law enforcement officer. 
 
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Ptl William Jenkins
 
William Jenkins is officially recognized as the City of Dayton’s first African-American patrolman.  He is, in fact, the first black officer to have a Dayton police career that concluded with the grant of a police pension.  Three other black men, although their service was short-lived, had received local police appointments before Jenkins, according to one fairly reliable but unattributed police source:  Lorenzo Dowing (3-3-1875 to 7-22-1875), Alolphus Harris (12-18-1893 to 9-1-1898) and Fred Parsons (5-28-1897 to 9-17-1897).  Two of these men served less than four months and one served less than five years.  Two other black men followed Ptl. Jenkins but also for periods of fleeting employment:  John S. Smith (6-9-1899 to 3-24-1902) and Alfa D. Clark (3-12-1901 to 8-17-1901).  All of these men, with the exception of Ptl. Jenkins, were “dismissed” from the Dayton police force.  No reasons for the dismissals are provided or are known at this time.  When it comes to these early hirings, a published source seems at odds with the unattributed police source.  This may be because it refers only to the time of Ptl. Jenkins’ service or because it was published 12 years after his hiring, thus overlooking these brief past appointments. 
 
The 1910 Dayton Police Department publication offers this biographical sketch:  “William Robert Jenkins, who, until recently, was the only colored man on the Dayton police force, [emphasis added] was born at Wilmington, Ohio on January 10, 1865.  He received a scant education in the schools of that city, and, after reaching an age where he could take care of himself, went to Dayton to reside.  His honesty and steadiness at hard labor were rewarded by an appointment on September 3, 1898.  ‘Jenks,’ as he is popularly known, is a terror to those colored people who are inclined to break the city laws, and he is a most valuable officer for that reason.  He has a wife, Hattie, and is affiliated with the colored Masons and Knights of Pythias.”
 
A subject of local police lore, it was said that ‘Jenks’ was known for his particular style of running after fleeing criminals.  He would kick off his shoes when he became involved in a ‘foot’ chase of a suspect because he believed he could run faster barefooted.  He developed a reputation for rarely losing a suspect.
 
After a 17-year police career, Ptl. Jenkins retired on November 16, 1916.  Having been the man to blaze the pathway to local police service for other black men, Ptl. Jenkins’ retirement came about with severe injury and personal duress.  According to pension records, in September 1916 Ptl. Jenkins was able to arrest four of six ‘Alabama gang’ members on Dunbar Ave., but not without a fight.  During the physical altercation, his left hand, right hip and nerves in his eyes were injured, rendering him “unfit for duty as a patrolman”.  His hip had been previously injured during the 1913 Great Flood.  Ptl. Jenkins was “all crippled up… [and] unable to move his legs.…”
 
September was the same month when one of the gang members shot and killed Dayton Det. George Purcell.  The pension record goes on to say that Ptl. Jenkins “fears constantly that he will be beaten up on by this gang… [that has] threatened to get him… and … is so crippled up… that he will be unable to properly protect himself.…”  The examining doctor noted that “Officer Jenkins is in a pitable condition. [sic]  He is suffering from rheumatism and neuritis in the right leg which totally incapacitates him for any work as a patrolman….” The doctor’s impression of Ptl. Jenkins was that he was “a good, conscientious and capable policeman… and… that something should be done for him which will help him out.”  By unanimous vote of the pension board, Ptl. Jenkins was placed on a pension of $40.00 per month.
 
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Ptl. Jenkins opened the way for the next two African-American career officers.  Lucius Rice and George Wheeler were appointed to the Dayton police force in 1909 and 1910 respectively.
 
What is also known from official police records is that Patrolmen George Wheeler and Lucius Rice were two of Dayton’s longest-serving black police officers.  In the 102 years from the hiring of William Jenkins to the end of the 20th Century, only four (4) black officers served more than 30 years and Ptls. Rice and Wheeler were the first two of those four.  At the time, the appointments of Rice and Wheeler increase to three (3) the number of black officers on the police force.  As points of reference, that number would increase to five (5) from 1919 through WWII and, then, again, increase to an average of seven (7) black officers until 1964.  During a 50-year period between 1910 and 1960, only 25 African-American officers were appointed to the ranks of the Dayton police force; however, in a subsequent period of a dozen years, the number of black officers in active service would gradually increase from 10 in 1964 to 52 in 1976.
 
Ptl. Lucius Rice was the first African-American officer promoted to the rank of sergeant in 1916 and Ptl. Wheeler was the second African-American so promoted in 1920.  Although the careers of Officers Rice and Wheeler took place over the same period of time and were intertwined, they were individuals and they both served the Dayton community with distinction and sacrifice. Their noteworthy careers ended respectively in 1939 (tragically) and 1943 (retirement). 
 
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 Sgt. Lucius Rice 1910
 
The 1910 Dayton Police Department publication offers this biographical sketch:  “Lucius J. Rice, one of the two colored members of the Dayton police force, was born at Orangeburg, North Carolina, May 27, 1876.  He received a good education there and came to Dayton when he grew up.  On June 1, 1909 he was appointed patrolman.  Mr. Rice has been Second Sergeant of Company C, O. N. G. fortwo years, and distinguished himself at Lake Erie in 1908 by winning a government medal for marksmanship.  He belongs to the colored K. of P. and Elk lodges.  Before his appointment Mr. Rice and his wife, Dora, conducted a restaurant.  He is a worthy and capable officer.”
 
As previously stated,Sgt. Lucius Rice was the first black man on the Dayton police force to hold a supervisory rank.  He was promoted to the rank of sergeant on November 16, 1916.  In a dreadful conclusion to his long and distinguished police career, Sgt. Rice was killed in action.  In the annals of the Dayton Police Department, three African-American officers have died while in the performance of duty.  Sgt. Rice was the second of the three.  The other two were Ptl. William T. Wilson (appointed 1925; shot by an acquaintance 1928) and Off. Eddie Hobson (appointed 1981; car crash 1981).  All three were tragic deaths but Sgt. Rice was a particularly heroic figure who prevailed even though he was twice struck down in the hail of gunfire.
 
In 1926, Lucius Ricedemonstrated his courage in a confrontation with a man wanted by police.  In an attempt to arrest the man, a gun battle ensued.  Although seriously injured by a gun shot wound to the abdomen, as he fell to the ground Sgt. Rice was able to shoot and kill his attacker.  Sgt. Rice survived that encounter and became detective sergeant.  In 1939 Sgt. Rice, along with Sgt. Wheeler and several detectives, were searching for a murder suspect when they entered home on College Street.  Sgt. Rice took the lead in the search.  Suddenly, the suspect emerged from a closet firing his revolver.  In the gun battle, Sgt. Rice was shot several times and struck in the abdomen for the second time in his career.  The suspect was apprehended but Sgt. Rice died from his wounds five days later on October 5, 1939.  His career had span 30 years.  His murderer was tried, convicted and executed. 
 
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Sgt. George Wheeler 1916
 
The hiring of George Wheeler occurred several months after the aforementioned publication and, as an unfortunate consequence, no official biographical sketch is available.  What is known from one police record is that George W. Wheeler was born on May 20, 1884 and appointed to the Dayton police force on November 11, 1910.  He was dismissed after two years on January 21, 1913 for reasons not given but reappointed eight months later on August 8, 1913.  What can be drawn from the record is that the discharge was not performance related.  Ptl. Wheeler was one of many police officers dismissed on that very date in 1913, a strong indication that the dismissals were a ‘reduction in force’ (i.e. an economic necessity).
 
Ptl. George Wheeler began his career walking a foot beat as did all young patrolmen but after he was reappointed to the police force, he was assigned to bicycle patrol, a novel approach to policing.  The unit was created in 1914 and Ptl. Wheeler appears in an early photograph along with three other officers.  The bicycle patrol lasted until 1916.  Ptl. Wheeler later became the second black man on the Dayton police force to hold a supervisory rank.  He was promoted to the rank of sergeant on May 1, 1920.  He held that rank for over four years but was demoted on December 18, 1924 for reasons not given or known at this writing.  Nevertheless, he continued in patrol, protecting those who lived and worked on his beat. 
 
In her book, Dayton’s African American Heritage, Margaret Peters recounts an anecdote by Josephine Wheeler that suggests George Wheeler was a no-nonsense patrolman.  “During Prohibition [1920-1933], Ptl. Wheeler heard bottles clink as a man wearing a trench coat walked along West Fifth Street.  The patrolman asked the man what he was doing.  The man answered, 'Oh, nothing.'  Ptl. Wheeler took his nightstick, smashed the bottle in the hidden pockets, and walked away as the man stood, dripping alcohol.”
 
Despite experiencing the loss of his “stripes” in 1924, Ptl. George Wheeler was surely a man of steady composition and reputation because, for a second time, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant 12 years later to the day on December 18, 1936.  He remained at that rank until retirement.  And despite witnessing the shooting death of his fellow officer, Lucius Rice in 1939, Sgt. Wheeler remained on the police force another four years until June 4, 1943.  He retired on a service pension after 32 plus years in law enforcement.  On that day, he became Dayton’s longest serving African-American officer and would carry that singular distinction for the next 50 years.
 
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Dayton Police Officers William Jenkins, Lucius Rice and George Wheeler…
 
…all three men left professional legacies the Dayton Police Department can recount with pride; legacies the Dayton community should admire and celebrate.