Friday, May 25, 2012

Noah E. Sedgwick: A Black Cop in DC's Gilded Age

March 17th, 1892:

34-year-old Noah E. Sedgwick dipped his pen in ink and began a letter to John W. Ross, Commissioner of the District of Columbia:
Dr. Sir, I have the honor to make application for a patrol driver or the like under your branch of the District Government. I will faithfully discharge the duties assigned me. Your obedient Servnt, Noah Sedwick.
A month later, Sedgwick once again took up his pen and filled out an application for appointment to the Metropolitan Police Department.
13. Have you ever been indicted and convicted of any crime?   Have not.
14. Are you addicted to the use of intoxicating liquors, morphine or opium?  Not.
15. Have you ever been addicted to the use of any of these articles?   No.
16. When did you last drink intoxicating liquors?   March 11th, 92.
The application even asked whether Sedgwick suffered from piles or rheumatism, but it did not ask him his race.

Sedgwick attached to his application endorsements from some of Georgetown’s most prominent businessmen:  Lumber merchant Samuel E. Wheatley; Frederick L. Moore, who owned an agricultural warehouse; Druggist William D. Brace; N Street physician, Dr. Henderson Suter; George T. Dunlop; and about a dozen others, all of whom agreed that the former schoolteacher and waiter Noah E. Sedgwick was cheerful, hard-working, and honest.

From his application, we know that Sedgwick was born on August 5, 1858 in Montgomery County, Md., just four years before the institution of slavery was abolished, and was a resident of Georgetown, D.C.

We know that his father had earlier died of typhoid fever and that Noah was now supporting a family of four—his mother may have been among them.

Noah may have been the son of Richard Sedgwick, born about 1845 in Berry’s District (just northeast of Wheaton) Montgomery County, who later moved to Georgetown, D.C.

In 1874, as the June 13 Evening Star noted, Noah received his diploma from the Georgetown Grammar School No. 1, housed in the Chamberlain School, a small frame building on East Street--now, East Place--in the African American section of Georgetown referred to as "Herring Hill."  He was 15.

On November 19, 1878, Noah was licensed to marry Emma L. Senkfield in Georgetown, and by 1880, the couple were living in Cracklin, Maryland (before it was incorporated in 1892, Laytonsville in Montgomery County was called Cracklinville, sometimes Cracklintown, after the popular Cracklin bread, which was baked in a local tavern. After awhile, the entire district around the area was nicknamed “Cracklin.”).  He was listed as a school teacher.

Grifton School, courtesy Sandy Spring Museum
Nina Clarke and Lillian Brown's History of the Black Public Schools of Montgomery County, Md: 1872-1961 show that in 1880, Noah taught at the tiny Grifton school on Mt. Zion road, halfway between Laytonsville and Sandy Spring, Md., which had been built four years earlier.

A year later, he was teaching at the Emory school in the black settlement of Emory Grove, near Gaithersburg, Md.  Emory Grove had, since the mid 1800's, been the site of a black Methodist camp meeting that predated the white meeting site at Washington Grove.  Camp meetings, usually held in late summer, gathered together Methodist and non-Methodist Christians for several days of preaching, prayer, bible study and socializing--and baptisms.

By 1883, as the chart below shows, he had an average of 35 pupils enrolled for at least three terms of the year.  This number fell in summer, when children were needed at home to help with farming.  That year, he was paid $172.41--based on enrollment.

It is assumed that Noah's wife Emma died sometime before 1883, which was the year he married his second wife, Mary.  The same year, Mary gave birth to the couple's first son, William.  Records show that they were still living in Maryland at the time of his birth.

According to the Washington Bee, Noah taught school in Virginia for some time.

By the late 1880s, Noah was living in Georgetown, where he worked over the next few years alternately as a cook, laborer, teacher and waiter. At the time of his application to the DC police force, he was both living and working at Charles Field’s Saloon at 3004 M Street (where the Latham Hotel now stands), supporting a family of four.

On August 1, Sedgwick was accepted onto the Metropolitan Police Force and appointed a Private, Class 1 D.C. Police Officer and was assigned to the 9th District in Northeast (pictured in 1894, below.  Sedgwick is standing, second to right figure in the back row).

It is not difficult to imagine his feelings as he donned the private’s uniform for the first time: It was single-breasted blue “frock”--or long jacket--ending two inches above the knee, with a single row of nine buttons extending up to a stand-up collar. Sedgwick’s trousers would have had two pockets behind and two in the front: One of these was a regulation five inches wide, seven inches deep and lined with chamois or buckskin, to accommodate his firearm. Lastly, he would have pinned the final symbol of his authority, Badge 379.

Sedgwick was hired at a salary of $900 a year—that is, $75 a month, a very decent salary in the last decade of the 19th century. He had no way of knowing that his time on the force would be limited and that like black officers in departments across the country, white officers would watch his every movement, looking for an excuse to let him go.

Left, abandoned 9th Precinct Building today
© Cecily Hilleary, 2010
The District of Columbia had always had some type of police presence. In the first half of the 19th century, the force consisted of only a handful of constables who kept watch and enforced the laws of the fledgling capital. After the outbreak of the Civil War, however, the safety of the Federal City became a greater concern. Congress officially established the Metropolitan Police Department (hereafter, MPD) on August 6, 1861.

In July, 1869, the MPD accepted its first black officers, Charles C. Tillman and Calvin C. Caruthers. This was not to satisfy any concerns about equal opportunity; this was purely because black cops would be “convenient” to walk the streets of black neighborhoods.

Racial tensions were high in Washington as in nearly every urban center as blacks came to terms with the reality that emancipation was not the same as political freedom. White officers were prone to the use of excessive force when dealing with blacks—and those blacks who tried to challenge the system were met with resistance, if not violent reprisals.

White residents blamed blacks for rising crime and asked the city to hire more police (from 1866 to 1880, the police force employed only 200 officers; differing shifts meant that at best, there were only about 125 stretched over a territory 75 square miles). It was hoped that black residents could better identify with black officers.

Tillman and Caruthers faced considerable opposition within the MPD. One white officer, Samuel H. Ellis, refused to work with a black man and was dismissed. He was later pardoned and reinstated. Some black residents would have resented the two, seeing them as agents of white authority and oppression.

It would be difficult to find statistics on how many black officers served at any one time in Washington—histories of the police force do not provide statistics, nor do service records.

What is certain is that they remained the minority: 1890, there were over 74,600 police-and firemen in the United States; only about 2,000 were African American. Another certainty is that a black man never served on the force for long: In 1879, only a single black officer remained of the previous 50 black officers hired.

In Washington as in cities across the U.S., 19th Century black officers would never be assigned to white neighborhoods, and certainly any attempt by a black policeman to enforce the law upon whites would have generated resentment, if not all-out retaliation—never mind the legendary arrest of Ulysses S. Grant by a black officer who did not recognize the President. Grant had been racing his horse buggy at a breakneck clip through the streets of Washington. After the officer impounded both buggy and horse, the president cheerfully commended him on his work and walked back to the White House. Or so the story goes.

Black officers, not surprisingly, were subjected to severe discrimination by both the department and fellow officers: They were given the most undesirable shifts and beats, were passed over for promotions, and in many cases actively driven from their jobs.

Sedgwick’s beat was vast:  It ran from Twelfth Street N.E. to the Eastern branch of the Potomac River and from North Capitol Street all the way to F Street N.E. He does not appear to have worked with a partner, but it is clear that white officers kept a close eye on his comings and goings.

Like other policemen, he was in charge of keeping law and order on his beat. This did not simply amount to chasing criminals. More often than not, it was mundane work: helping the homeless, searching for lost children, returning stray livestock to rightful owners, checking doors and escorting the inebriated back to their families.

Sedgwick distinguished himself in at least two sensational cases: In May, 1894, he made the newspapers by arresting the so-called “Candy Man,” a 40-year-old German pedophile named Henry Windelberg, tried to lure two young girls away from Lincoln Park by promising them candy.

A year later, Sedgwick went unassisted to investigate the unreported death of an elderly woman at “Aunt” Hetty Green’s, a notorious “cook shop” (saloon) and brothel at the corner of 17th and B Streets, N.E. (today’s Constitution Avenue). He found a large group of men holding a “wake” over the woman’s body.

This in itself was not an unusual practice among the city’s poor residents; funerals were often conducted in alleys and neighborhood streets, where family members took up collections to pay for a coffin and other funeral expenses.

However, the men gathered at Green’s saloon this particular evening were drunk and made a huge racket singing “indecent” songs. Sedgwick ordered them to disperse, and they did—that is, all but one, who sneered and challenged Sedgwick’s authority.

“What are you afraid of?” the man called out to the others and he cursed “that there man in brass buttons.” In no time, a crowd began to surround Sedgwick, and when he tried to arrest the instigator, as many as thirty men attacked him.

Sedgwick fought bravely. In fact, said the Post, the only way he escaped with his life was with the “free use” of his nightstick. Somehow, Sedgwick got away--cut, bruised and missing both a tooth and his police badge.

These and other examples of Sedgwick’s diligence and bravery are not noted in his service record.

The Washington Bee ran an editorial in October, 1895 (above), urging that Sedgwick be promoted to sergeant:
"He is one of the most feared officers in the east and one of the most respected among all classes. So well has he done his duty that the citizens in the northeast, especially the white property owners, want him promoted to a sergeant. There is no reason why Officer Sedgwick cannot be promoted to a sergeant. He is competent, and there is
nothing that can prevent his promotion except his color, and it is not believed that the color prejudice will be strong enough to prevent his superior officers from promoting him to the position the people want him to fill.

Officer Sedgwick is a man of family. His wife is a very interesting and pleasant young woman. His boy is about 14 years old and attends the public schools of this city. He loves his family and is a good provider.

The Bee joins in with the people and recommends to Lieut. Heffner and Major,
Moore, who have no prejudice on account of color, to appoint Sedgwick sergeant at the next vacancy."
Noah's personnel file also contains a series write-ups, complaints and charges of neglect of duty, each of which resulted in $5-10 fines—and recommendations that he be released from the force.

Sedgwick was not the first—and would not be the last—cop, white or black, to be charged with misconduct. Browsing service records and newspaper accounts, officers seemed to spend as much time as possible finding ways to break the rules and avoid the sharp eyes of 9th Precinct House Inspector Isaac Pearson. “Uncle Ike,” as he was called, was a Civil War and Navy veteran noted for his toughness. His job was not only to inspect the officers, as his title suggested, but to prowl their beats to ensure that his officers did not stray from duty.

The most common offenses were “hoodling”—that is, the practice whereby one partner would keep lookout while the other napped, consorting with hookers and drinking on duty. Every corner had its saloon, and all a man in blue had to do was tap on a window, and a glass of whiskey or beer would be passed to him.
On October 19th, 1892, Sedgwick was up before the Trial Committee for the first time:
That said Noah E. Sedgwick, a private of Class 1 in the Metropolitan Police Force D.C., while on duty on or about the 10th day of October, 1892, did leave his beat and enter grocery and liquor store kept by John T. Cheshire, No., 1168 20th Street, N.W.
Sedgwick pled guilty and gave several excuses which were rather lame. He was fined $10, half of which was to be paid in November and the other half in December.

Sedgwick was tried for neglect of duty again in August, 1893. Both he and a new white recruit, D.M. Reidy, were accused of having failed to patrol their beats between 3:50 and 4:20 A.M. Both men pled guilty and were fined $10, payable in two installments. No further details were noted. It can only be presumed that one of them caught a half-hour nap while the other kept guard. Figuring out who did which is a matter for guesswork. Sedgwick promised it would never happen again.

Some sort of charges were pending against Sedgwick in May, 1895--which prompted a Mr. A.S. Richardson to write a letter to DC Commissioner George Truesdell in support of the officer:
Dear Sir:  I understand that there are charges against Noah Sedgwick, a policeman within whose beat I reside and whom I have known some years.  I beg to say a word in his behalf or rather to suggest that from my observation and knowledge of him he is a very efficient officer and a man of strictly temperate life.  He is popular and well liked and any consideration extended to him will meet the approval of the citizens in this section.
Trusting that you will excuse this, perhaps seeming trespass, I am, very respectfully yours...
On July 3, 1895, Sedgwick once again went before the DC Board of Commissioners:
That N.E. Sedgwick, a private of Class 1 in the Metropolitan Police Force, D. of C., did, on or about the 25th day of June, 1895, at or about the hour of 10:40 p.m. enter a bar room premises situate [sic] on B between 13th and 14th streets, N.W., and remain therein three minutes. This while on duty.
This case would have been thrown out of any modern trial room. Sedgwick left his beat to use a privy located in an alley stable, which happened to be situated a few yards behind a saloon. Uncle Ike Pearson had observed the entire thing from the street and was the first to testify against Sedgwick:
Q: Inspector, state what your knowledge is concerning this case.
A: On the evening in question, I saw Mr. Sedgwick enter these premises and remain in there about three minutes, and then come out.
Q: What premises were they?
A: B Street [Constitution Avenue] between 13th and 14th North-east.
Q: What kind of premises?
A: Bar room premises.
Q: Did he enter the bar room proper?
A: No, sir; he entered through the alley, through a stable.
Q: Was he gone from your view long enough to have gone to the bar room?
A: Yes, sir.
Well, no, admitted Pearson, when pressed, he didn’t exactly see Sedgwick go into the bar. He saw him enter the premises.
Q: Did you discover any fumes of liquor on his breath?
A: I thought I did at one time; one time I got pretty close to him, I thought I smelled liquor, but he got away from me every time I got close to him; he would step away, back away…
Q: What excuse, if any, did he give for entering the place?
A: Said he went in there to urinate.
Q: Was there any other place in the vicinity where he could have gone that was not a bar room premises, for this purpose?
A: This was an alley, a very dark alley, and there was a cart in this alley where no one could have seen him…
Q: Suppose, Lieutenant, instead of urinating in the stable he had gone to a privy, and found a man there, and had to wait a minute or two, you would not have reported him?
A: No, sir; if he had gone there, and a man was in there, and Mr. Sedgwick had to wait there a few minutes, and I knew that he went in there for the purpose of urinating, and there was no other place for him to go, I would not have reported him, but there were other places to urinate, but he selected this place to urinate, and also that I had a complaint that he went there every evening on duty to drink.
In what had to be an excruciatingly embarrassing experience, Sedgwick desribed how he had entered the stable from the alley and found the privy occupied.  Unwilling or unable to wait any longer, he said he had stepped out into the yard between the stable and the saloon and urinated there.  
 Q: What did you go in there for?
A: To urinate.
Q: Is that or not a part of the bar room premises?
A: I would not consider it so.
Q: What premises are the?
A: Mr. Callahan has charge of that stable; he rents that stable.
Q: Was it on your beat?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And you don’t think you were in there three minutes?
A: No, sir, I don’t.
Q: The Lieutenant thinks you might have secreted yourself in some other place than in that water closet to urinate, how about that? Do you know of any other place?
A: Yes, sir, the whole commons is wide open.
The privy occupant, Mr. William Clayton, supported Sedgwick’s testimony; in fact, he said, Sedgwick had inadvertently opened the door on Clayton, and exchanged brief words with the man. Clayton could hear Sedgwick urinating outside.

In addition, the bartender, A. W. Clark, testified that Sedgwick had never entered the bar room nor had any drinks delivered to him in the yard.

In spite of all the testimony in his favor, the trial committee found Sedgwick guilty of a neglect of duty and fined him $5, due on or before August 5th.

To be continued...

© Cecily Hilleary, 2010

Photos of Ninth Police District and detail of Noah Sedgwick from:  Young, J. Russell and Feeney, James L., The Metropolitan Police Department:  An Official Illustrated History.  Washington D.C., Lawrence Publishing Co., 1908.

Washington DC Police and Fire Precinct Map arranged by Richard Sylvester, from Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia [1898], courtesy Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
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