Authors: Arthur Browne
AN EARLY READER
of this portrait of Samuel Jesse Battle harkened back to the Old Testament, verse three of Psalm 106: “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” The connection was fitting. Battle’s enormous courage, seemingly limitless charity, and unfailing insistence on dignity far exceeded his human flaws. He would not be told no when no was unjust. Expecting equal treatment—and occasionally paying dearly for his good faith—he persevered to prevail over some of New York’s most closely guarded racial barriers.
The moral bearing that propelled Battle’s victories shines most vividly through his own words. In 1949, he hired Langston Hughes to write his autobiography, spent hours speaking with the renowned Harlem Renaissance poet, and provided him with handwritten recollections. The result was a never-published, eighty-thousand-word book titled
Battle of Harlem.
One copy of the manuscript resides among Hughes’s papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Battle’s grandson Tony Cherot has custody of a second copy. The two are not identical. After publishers showed no interest, Battle worked with a new partner in hope of making the book more marketable. He also secured a foreword by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
All to no avail.
Relying on Cherot’s copy of the revised manuscript, I set out to bring Battle to life in contexts that stretched from the post–Civil War South through turn-of-the-century New York, through his fight to join the New York Police Department, through the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition, through the glorious rise and tragic fall of Harlem, through the Great Depression and two world wars. From his rambunctious boyhood in 1880s rural North Carolina to his death in Harlem in 1966, Battle was so engaged in his times that his journey illuminates the sagas of the United States and its largest city as oppressively experienced by African American citizens.
To the extent that I have succeeded in capturing the man and his eras, I owe a debt of gratitude to scholars and authors who documented the country’s social, cultural, political, economic, sporting, and military evolutions. As but two examples, Gilbert Osofsky’s
Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto
was invaluable to understanding how the forces of racial hatred and money shaped the capital of black America, while Jervis Anderson’s
This Was Harlem
tells of the people who, against all odds, built a vibrant society there. True to form, the New York Public Library and its Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture came through as repositories of documents, histories, biographies, journals, and out-of-print memoirs that bolstered Battle’s reminiscences. Then there was the
New York Age
, whose crusading zeal and depth of coverage place the weekly in the ranks of America’s finest newspapers. Although little remembered even in New York, the
’s seven decades of journalism are foundational to understanding black America from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth.
Arnold Rampersad’s monumental two-volume
The Life of Langston Hughes
indispensably illuminated the man, the artist, and his times. Similarly, Cherot’s boyhood memories serve as the basis for descriptions of Battle’s life in retirement, including his relationship with Hughes.
Battle’s own words remain the heart of the matter. They are the wellspring of countless facts, because he turned out to have possessed an astonishingly good memory. As captured by Hughes, his voice breathes personal vitality into passages ranging from brief quotations to sections several hundred words long. I have drawn the vast majority of these materials from the revised
Battle of Harlem
manuscript (editing lightly for sense or brevity) and present them without endnote references.
Battle memorialized his life in two additional places: in a 1960 interview with Columbia University’s Oral History Collection and in the written notes he prepared for Hughes. I marked excerpts of these with references to endnotes.
Words left behind by the remarkable Wesley Augustus Williams are similarly treated. Inspired by Battle, Williams waged the struggle to integrate the New York City Fire Department. In retirement, he recounted his experiences in numerous speeches and in an extended interview given to the author of a master’s thesis. Typescripts of the speeches and the thesis reside at the Schomburg Center and are the collective basis for a narrative that intertwines with Battle’s.
Reared to be a God-fearing Christian, Battle lived by a simple moral code. He applied the Golden Rule to others and demanded it in return, with equally unflagging bravery and optimism, even under the hardest circumstances. This is one more way of expressing the thought called from the psalm by my early reader, my friend, the estimable Vince Cosgrove. For Battle was indeed a man who observed justice and who demonstrated the power that can beat in the heart of one righteous man.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
THE REVEREND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
WHEN HE SPOKE OF ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
, Samuel Jesse Battle often told a story about a glass of water. It was a glass of ice water, poured by the First Lady of the United States. The year was 1943. America was at war against a regime built on racial and religious supremacy, yet America enforced white superiority at home. And here was Mrs. Roosevelt, in Harlem, capital of black America, on stage in a jammed assembly hall. The air grew stifling. A heavyset woman of great dignity was speaking. The heat appeared to be getting the better of her. Mrs. Roosevelt walked to a pitcher of cold water, brought a glassful to the podium, and returned to her seat, her courtesy toward a woman who was “as black as a shoe” indelibly impressing Battle as a symbol of hope.
Now he gathers that memory and many others because one of America’s best writers is coming so that they can tell the story of how the son of freed slaves had triumphed in New York, triumphed over New York. He remembers the tour guides who brought people to gawk at the “colored policeman” as if he were a zoo animal. He remembers the death threats and the swinging nightsticks. He remembers the hot night he saved a fallen white officer from a black mob.
After two world wars and the Great Depression, the twentieth century is at its halfway mark. So many of those who had been there are gone. So much is being forgotten. That will change with this book. He walks down the back stairway of the great old townhouse, carrying a pad of paper on which he has outlined the story in penciled longhand.
Samuel Battle’s step is firm. He is six feet two and 260 pounds, fuller in girth than when he had been in boxing trim but still powerful at the age of sixty-six. No wrinkles etch his deep brown skin; no gray flecks appear in his closely cropped hair. Somewhere along the way he has acquired reading glasses. But nothing else has gone wrong. He proudly attributes his physical condition to clean, moral living.
Florence is in the kitchen with fresh produce. She shops downtown because the markets in Harlem have few fruits and vegetables. It is an hour’s subway ride, but she insists on the trip because she keeps the house just so. Home had been Florence’s domain from the start. Forty-five years of marriage—Battle smiles to think of her, a sixteen-year-old girl, taking in marriage a young man making his way as a redcap luggage porter at the old Grand Central Depot. He would tell all about the tough, good days of 1905.
Battle studies his wife, noting the personal qualities that are important to the story. She is fair-skinned. She is particular about her appearance, especially her choice of clothing. Her hair is long, black, and straight. She wears this telltale of Cherokee blood in a bun. At the moment, she is getting things right for the famous Langston Hughes, and she is none too pleased by the sound of thumping feet. It’s the boy, Tony, their grandson, running, always running. Florence calls up the stairs. The house is not a playground, she says. Take your energy outside, she says.
Battle slips into his study. The walls are crowded with bookshelves. Most of the volumes are histories; in fiction, Hawthorne is still a favorite. Not bad for someone who finished only elementary school, Battle thinks. He places the pad on a desk, the paper listing his milestones: first black cop, first black sergeant, first black lieutenant in the New York Police Department.
To get the story right, he would have to tell about all the hard fights, and about all the entertainers, clergymen, journalists, doctors, boxers, athletes, artists, gangsters, and politicians he had known. Many of them had been “firsts” in the way that he had been first. Through the long era when segregation was not only legal but the norm, when no US president would support even antilynching legislation, when white domination was enforced with unrelenting violence, Battle had lived on the frontier of the American black experience. The men and women of his memory had also blazed trails. Collectively, they had formed the backbone of an American civil rights movement well before America discovered that America had a civil rights movement, well before America recognized that extraordinary men and women were indomitably at work bending the long, moral arc.
Wild and wooly New York would also be a big part of the story. Battle thinks that Hughes will be just the man to tell about the bare-knuckled city because Hughes had known Harlem in its finest glory and because Hughes too had been a path breaker. He seemed to have written about everything there was to write about, but nothing more so than about the lives of black Americans. So, for the considerable sum of $1,500, Battle has hired the poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist to tell the story he wants told.
Young voices bring Battle back from rummaging through history to thinking about the future that was upstairs in his grandchildren: nine-year-old Tony, full name Thornton Cherot, and his sister Yvonne, who was twelve. As he treasured his own country boyhood in the South, he especially values Tony’s exuberance on West 138th, a street where kids can play. And Tony plays and plays and plays, stickball, stoopball, catch, and any other game conjured by the imaginations on the block. All the scamps come to the townhouse because Tony and Yvonne have a television that shows
in fuzzy black-and-white.
On Friday nights, Tony watches the prize fights with Battle, who instructs the boy in the finer points of boxing and is ready anytime to talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers’ box scores. The Dodgers are Tony’s team—not the Giants, not the Yankees—because the Dodgers have Jackie Robinson. In front of America, Robinson is answering with grace and superior play the fans and players who would keep him off the field.
Better than anyone, Battle understands, and he wants Tony to understand, too. That’s one more reason why he wants his story told. One day, Battle feels proud to know, Tony would look back in awe that his grandfather had made him witness to the creation of the autobiography of Samuel J. Battle as told to Langston Hughes.
It is a short walk for Hughes from his apartment on West 127th to the townhouse on West 138th. Dressed with rumpled style, in a fashion that is casual but hardly careless, his slacks, shirt, and jacket bespeaking both informality and thought, as he comes up the front steps Hughes looks the part of a writer or intellectual. He greets Battle and Florence with easy-smiling courtesy. Battle hands Hughes the lined pad. The heading reads, “My Loving Christian Parents,” and the words “God blessed me from birth.”
Then Battle and Hughes set to work; one reminiscing, the other drawing out the story of how Battle and his contemporaries bent the arc of the universe toward justice.