In this picture we find eight police officers seated in Atlanta’s Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church on April 30th, 1948. Ceremonies to honor police officers are special, but not always historically noteworthy. What makes this photograph exceptional? Honored in this picture are Atlanta’s first African American police officers, available to History Atlanta from the Atlanta Journal Constitution Archives at the Georgia State University Library. So a seemingly normal picture provides a great story about Atlanta history.
Officers Claude Dixon, Henry Hooks, Johnnie Jones, Ernest Lyons, Robert McKibbens, John Sanders, Willard Strickland and Willie Elkins first patrolled Atlanta streets 27 days before this picture was captured by photographer William Alexander, starting on April 3rd, 1948. But the tale of the integration of the Atlanta Police Department starts before their first patrol on April 3rd. Throughout the 1940’s the African American community in Atlanta made advancements through leveraging their voting power, increased public protest and high-level negotiations. By 1948, seeking reelection and needing votes, Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield consented to African American leaders a historic demand. In return for hiring eight African American police officers, these leaders promised Mayor Hartsfield their neighborhoods and their voting blocs.
Initially there were many restrictions to their authority. They patrolled predominately African American neighborhoods, focusing on the areas surrounding Auburn Avenue, or “Sweet Auburn” as it is affectionately called, and stayed out of white neighborhoods. They had separate facilities than the police headquarters on Decatur Avenue, operating out of a Y.M.C.A. on Butler Street to avoid pissing off their racist white coworkers.
They could not stop or arrest well-to-do white people, but they were required to stop any crime that was in progress. And there was leeway in the white rule, particularly with white drunks and vagrants. Many stories about these eight police officers indicate they were not issued or allowed to carry guns, but many of the pictures discovered by History Atlanta show the officers with guns and bullets. Some reports indicate they were paid the same as their white coworkers at $196 a month.
Officer Ernest Lyons later recalled that a crowd gathered outside the Y.M.C.A. for their first patrol on April 3rd, 1948, and the crowd followed all eight as they completed their first patrol. Their first arrests occurred during one of their early patrols, with Officer Willie Elkins arresting a couple engaged in a domestic dispute at a wine store on Butler Street. Their first case to appear in court occurred in October of 1948, with Officer Johnnie Jones and Officer Henry Hooks charging a John Henry Williams with holding illegal whiskey. Williams was found guilty and fined $300.
Willie Elkins was the oldest at 32 years old, but was the first to leave the force (within two months), retiring because of racial tensions and the limitations placed on the officers. He publicly cited these reasons many years later in interviews. Elkins went on to attend Morehouse College, served in the Korean War and eventually worked for Lockheed Martin. He died in 1970 from kidney failure.
John Sanders left the police force within a year of taking his oath. He reenlisted in the army and died in 2003. Claude Dixon was the youngest of the eight at 21 years old. He committed suicide in 1982.
Willard Strickland stuck with the Atlanta Police Department until 1964 when he left to help the city of Decatur integrate their police department, becoming one of the two first African American police officers to patrol those streets. In 1969 he retired from police work and moved to New York City where he died in 1990.
Henry Hooks, Robert McKibbens and Ernest Lyons all retired in 1980 from the Atlanta Police Department. Hooks, who retired as a Sergeant, died in 1996, and McKibbens, who also retired a Sergeant, died in 1994. Ernest Lyons, who dreamed of being a police officer since he was a small child, died in 2000 at the age of 80.
The hypocrisy of the America dream for African Americans during this time period in Atlanta history was sickening for Officer Johnnie Jones, a World War II veteran of the South Pacific who could not arrest white people. By 1951 Jones had left the police department and later moved to Savannah. He was the first black chairman of the Chatham County Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission and was the last of the first eight black Atlanta police officers to pass away. Jones died on March 6th, 2013 at the age of 93.
Other Historic Facts About The History of Atlanta Police:
By October 1949 African American police officers in Atlanta had two patrol cars.
In 1955 there were 15 African American police officers in Atlanta.
Women were first assigned to regular patrols on August 1st, 1957.
Howard Baugh became the first African American superior officer in 1961.
Claude Everett Mundy, Jr. was the first African American police officer who died in the line of duty. Officer Mundy was shot while responding to a burglary on January 5th, 1961, and left behind a wife and five children.
In 1969 black and white officers started working together.
And finally, in 1971 Linnie Hollowman became the first African American female police officer, making Atlanta history.