Authors: Thomas Mullen
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“I must tell you, it was not easy for me to raise my right hand and say, âI, Willard Strickland, a Negro, do solemnly swear to perform the duties of a Negro policeman.'â”
âOfficer Willard Strickland, Atlanta Police Department, Retired, in a 1977 speech recalling his 1948 induction as one of the city's first eight African American officers
IT WAS NEARING
midnight when one of the new lampposts on Auburn Avenue achieved the unfortunate fate of being the first to be hit by a car. Shards of a white Buick's headlight fell scattered across the sidewalk below the now-leaning pole.
Locusts continued their thrum in the thick July air. Windows were open throughout town, the impact no doubt waking many. The lone pedestrian on that block, an old man on his way home from sweeping floors at a sugar factory, was no more than ten yards away. He had stepped back when the car jumped the curb but now he stopped and watched for a moment, in case the pole should come crashing the rest of the way down. It didn't. At least not yet.
The Buick reversed, slowly, the front wheel easing off the curb. The movement caused the pole to lean the other way, too far, and then back again, a giant metronome.
The pedestrian could hear a woman's voice, shouting. Something about what on earth do you think you're doing, just take me home, that sort of thing. The pedestrian shook his head and shambled off before something worse might happen.
Whether or not the lampposts were
exactly, was a matter of perspective. It had been a few months now, but considering how many years it had taken the leaders of Atlanta's colored community to convince the mayor to install them, and considering the many, many years in which Negroes had walked down even their busiest and most monied street in darkness, the celestial presence of those lampposts still
None of which was known to the Buick's driver.
He had been attempting to turn around in the middle of the other
wise empty street but had misjudged his turning radius, or the width of the road, or general physics. He also perhaps hadn't noticed that two blocks away were two Atlanta police officers.
Five minutes earlier, Officer Lucius Boggs finally confronted his partner, Tommy Smith, about his limp.
“You did not hurt yourself playing baseball. Own up.”
“It was a hard slide,” Smith said.
“But you told McInnis you were rounding third.”
At roll call, Smith had assured their sergeant, McInnis, that his knee was fine, just a tweak he'd felt in a game he'd played with some buddies.
You know how those sand lots are, sir, no traction.
McInnis had listened to this stone-faced, as if experienced enough at hearing colored flimflam but deciding the truth of this matter was not worth prodding into.
“I fell out a window,” Smith now admitted to Boggs. They were standing on Hilliard Street, three blocks from the Negro YMCA whose basement served as their makeshift precinct. At that hour the sun was long gone but it had left more than enough heat to last until it felt like showing up again. Both officers had sweated through their undershirts, and even their uniforms were damp.
“What do you think?”
Boggs folded his arms and couldn't help smiling. “And who was the lady you were impressing with your acrobatics?”
in the middle of entertaining her
with my acrobatics, matter of fact. When her man busted into the apartment.”
“Are you crazy?”
“She'd told me he'd left her, pulled up stakes for Detroit. She talked about needing some lawyer to do her divorce papers or something.”
Atlanta police officers were ordered to abide by a strict moral codeâno drinking, even at home, and no womanizingâbut that had not entirely sunk in with Tommy Smith. The Negro officers dutifully avoided alcohol, as they knew all too well that a witness could report them and get them suspended, but for Smith the idea of suddenly becoming a chaste man was altogether too much.
“You're going to get yourself killed.”
go after the married ones.”
“Except for her, and the girl who did that thing with the candied pecans, andâ”
“That's different, she and I went way back.”
They started walking again.
“So then what happened?”
“What do you think? Pulled on my britches and jumped out the window.”
“What floor did she live on?”
“One of them places with no fire escape. I'd say I'm walking remarkably well, considering.”
“What happened with the husband?”
“I did not linger around to eavesdrop.”
“Aren't you at least worried?”
“She struck me as the kind of gal knew how to handle herself and think on her feet.”
Boggs was the son of a minister, and though he had chosen not to follow in his father's footsteps, the idea of tomcatting across town the way his partner did was utterly foreign to him. His own experience with women had been limited to innocent dates with well-mannered, well-raised young ladies of the Negro intelligentsia, and he was coming off a recent broken engagement to a girl who'd finally told him that the stress of knowing her fiancÃ© might be shot or beaten on any given night was too much for her constitution to handle.
A squad car approached, the headlights strangely off. Hilliard had neither lampposts nor sidewalks. They stopped talking and stood there, each wondering if they should back up a few steps, or would that look weak.
Then the car accelerated, and each of them did indeed take a step back onto the small plot of grass and weeds that served as someone's front yard. The squad car feinted toward them, swerving a bit, then screeched to a stop.
They caught glimpses of two white officers whose faces they didn't
recognizeâcops from other beats who just happened to be driving through, apparently.
The white cops yelled,
Monkey sounds and orangutan sounds and maybe some gorilla thrown in.
“Watch your asses, niggers!”
Then the squad car sped off, the white cops laughing hysterically.
You couldn't show fear. They acted like it was all a harmless prank, even when they gunned their engines at you when you were crossing the street, even when they nearly grazed against you. More than once Boggs had stood in the road to flag down a squad car, needing assistance for an arrest, when the car had accelerated toward him until he'd had to leap out of the way. Laughter in its wake. Surely, if the day came when they actually
run over one of the colored officers, they would insist it was an accident.
Neither Boggs nor Smith felt like telling stories anymore as they reached the corner of Auburn, the night silent but for the almost mechanical churn of locusts and the call-and-response of crickets. The marquee over Bailey's Royal Theater was off, as were the lights of the jeweler and tailoring shops; someone had left on a third-floor office lamp at Atlanta Life Insurance Company, but other than that and the streetlights, all was dark. Then they heard the crash.
They turned, each half-hoping to see that the squad car had hit a fire hydrant or perhaps a brick wall. Instead they saw a white Buick two blocks away, on the curb, and the light pole dancing almost, or at least swaying drunkenly. They watched as the light flickered once, then again, just as each of their homes' electricity did during thunderstorms.
The Buick backed up. They couldn't read the tags from so far away. Then it started driving toward them.
They had been police officers for just under three months now, walking the beats around Auburn Avenue (the neighborhood where both had lived all their lives save the war years) and the West Side, on the other side of downtown. Although Atlanta's eight Negro officers had not yet been entrusted with squad cars, they did have uniforms:
black caps with the gold city crest, dark blue shirts on which their shiny badges were pinned, black slacks, and black ties (Smith being one of two cops on the team who went with the bow-tie option, which he found rather dapper). Their thick belts were weighed down by a heavy arsenal of weapons and gear, including firearms, which terrified a number of white people in Atlanta and beyond.
Boggs stepped into the road and held out a palm. The white cops may have enjoyed trying to run over their colored colleagues, but civilians were another matter. Or so he hoped. The Buick was driving slower than was normal, as if ashamed. Its headlights glinted off his badge.
The Buick stopped.
“He's not turning his engine off,” Smith said after a few seconds.
Boggs walked over to the driver's door, Smith mirroring him along the sidewalk and stopping at the passenger door. The soles of Smith's shoes hardly made a sound because the cement had been meticulously swept by someone that very morning, not a twig or cigarette butt in sight.
The glare from the streetlights had prevented the officers from getting a good look in the car until now. All they had been able to discern were silhouettes of a driver with a hat and a passenger without.
Boggs opened his mouth and was about to ask for the driver's license and registration when he saw that the driver was white.
That he hadn't expected. What he
suspected, that the driver was drunk, was correct. Boggs was bathed in alcohol fumes as the portly white man gazed at him with something between annoyance and contempt.
“May I have your license and registration, please, sir?”
White people were not often found in Sweet Auburn, the wealthiest Negro neighborhood in Atlantaâpossibly in the world, boosters liked to say. Adventurous whites looking for gambling or whores in the darker parts of town would normally troll along Decatur Street, by the railroad tracks, a half mile to the south. Or they'd find one of the other, more nefarious areas that the colored officers patrolled. This fellow was either lost or so drunk and stupid that he figured any colored part of town offered the vices he craved, when in fact this neighborhood mostly held churches, real estate firms, banks, insurance companies, funeral parlors, barbershops, and the sorts of restaurants long closed at this hour. A
couple of nightclubs did grace the streets, yes, but they were respectable places where respectable Negroes gathered, and they only opened their doors to whites on Saturdays, when Negroes weren't allowed in.
The driver's gray homburg was tipped high, as if he'd been rubbing sweat from his forehead. Which he needed to be doing more of, because his skin was still shiny. Hair light gray, blue tie loosened, linen jacket wrinkled. He seemed sweatier than a man driving a car should be, Boggs thought. Like he'd just been doing something strenuous.
On the other side of the car, Smith visually frisked the man's passenger. She wore the kind of yellow sundress that always made him so thrilled when spring came along, and even here in the depths of summer he was not a man to complain about the kind of heat that allowed the women of Atlanta to walk around half naked. She was short enough to cross her legs in the front seat, the hem above her knee. Light glinted off a small locket that looked stuck to the dampness at the small of her throat.
She made eye contact with Smith for only the briefest of seconds, just enough for him to gather a few facts. She was light-skinned and young, early twenties at most. The right side of her lip looked a shade of red that didn't match her lipstick. Red and slightly puffy.
Although Smith could not yet see the driver, he divined the man's race based on the subtle change in Boggs's voice when asking for the license. Not exactly deferential, but more polite than was otherwise warranted.
The driver answered, “No, you may not.”
Boggs was cognizant of the fact that the man's right hand was at his side, on the seat, and therefore out of view. Boggs decided he need not comment on this yet. Hopefully Smith could see it. The man's left hand casually rested on the steering wheel, the engine still running.
“You hit a light pole, sir.”
“I mighta glanced against it.” Not even looking at Boggs.
“It's leaning over and will need to be fixed, andâ”
“You're wasting my time, boy.”
Nothing but a crescendo of katydids for a moment, and only then did the white man deign to look at Boggs. Just to check out how that had registered on this uppity Negro's face.
Boggs tried not to let it register at all. His face, he knew, was very good at being blank. This had been commented upon by parents, schoolteachers, girlfriends.
What are you thinking right now? Where are you? Penny for your thoughts?
He'd always hated those questions.
I'm right here. I'm thinking thoughts, any thoughts, who knows. And no, you can't buy them.
Normally you weren't supposed to look white folks in the eye. But Boggs was the police. This was only the third time he and Smith had dealt with a white perpetrator. Colored officers only patrolled the colored parts of town, where whites were infrequent visitors.
“I need to see your license and registration, sir.”
“You don't need to see anything, boy.”