Two days into the unrest in Charlotte, a response to the killing of Keith Scott, some have questioned why black residents would take to the Queen City's streets to protest the police. The answer, perhaps, is in Charlotte’s recent and forgotten police history. Indeed, like other cities that have erupted in violent protest in the wake of police shootings, Charlotte has a long history of racist policing that extends from the period of slavery into the 21st century.
Scholars have argued that in most Southern cities, the precursor to police forces were slave patrols. Charlotte is no exception. According to research by Dan L. Morrill, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, slavery was a “fundamental component of the social hierarchy of pre-Civil War Mecklenburg County," and that social hierarchy was dictated by law and policed by “town guards.”
“In Charlotte, for example, where 44 percent of the people were slaves in 1850, town officials passed ordinances that closely circumscribed the behavior of blacks. [Slaves] were not allowed to be out on the streets after 9:30 P.M without written permission of their owners. They could not buy or sell alcohol or even smoke a pipe or a cigar in public. Slaves could not leave their plantations without a pass or assemble without the permission of their owners. Slaves could not hold worship services and were forced to go to the white man's churches. A town guard roamed the streets of Charlotte from 9:00 P.M. until dawn and had the authority to ‘visit all suspected Negro houses,’ including those occupied by free blacks, most of whom were artisans. Any black who defied these ordinances was harshly punished.”
Emancipation brought new freedoms and opportunities for blacks in Charlotte, though, and they began to enter the city's police force in droves during the period of Reconstruction. In fact, according to author and historian Ryan L. Sumner, black officers comprised between 20 and 40 percent of Charlotte’s police force between 1863 and 1877. However, as was the case in other cities throughout the South, that progress was undone as local whites consolidated political and economic power in the city through violence, intimidation, and Jim Crow laws deployed to control blacks well into the 20th century. Before long, Charlotte’s police force became all white.
Sumner published a history of the Charlotte and Mecklenburg County Police Department at the behest of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police union in 1993 that details what came next. By the time the 1930s rolled around, he writes, Charlotte was still without a single black police officer. In the late ‘30s, however, J. S. Nathaniel Tross—a local black minister, newspaper publisher, and radio personality—formed the "Community Crusaders" with the help of other black civic leaders. The Crusaders was an organization “founded for the purpose of combating crime” in Charlotte’s black neighborhoods. The group successfully lobbied the Charlotte city government to add black officers to its police force. They argued, according to Sumner, that the presence of black officers on the force would “forge a new bond between police and the black community and ease racial tensions stirred by complaints of police brutality.”
On July 11, 1941, the Charlotte police department hired A.M. “Bub” Houston. At the time, he served as the first non-white Charlotte police officer in at least 60 years. Months later, Houston was joined on the force by another black man, James Ross, and the two were designated as “special peace officers," roles that came with neither civil service protection nor sidearms. Seven years later, Houston and Ross became full officers after the Veteran Welfare Association of Charlotte, an organization comprised of black World War II vets, pushed for change. By that time, Charlotte had six other black officers: Ray Booton, Varday Spencer, George T. Nash, Jr., James Taylor, John Lyles, and John Hoffman.
In the decades that followed, black residents in Charlotte continued to fight for representation on the city’s police force. In 1974, a group of black police officers sued the City of Charlotte for discrimination. Subsequently, a consent order was issued that allowed the federal government to monitor the hiring and promotion practices of the Charlotte police, leading to more black ranking officers on the force. Charleston's black cops continued to put pressure on the city over the years, creating more opportunities for blacks in the police department and, eventually, Charlotte’s first black police chief, Rodney Monroe, in 2008.
Despite having a black police chief, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department today still isn’t close to representing the diversity of its population. According to the U.S. Census, 50 percent of Charlotte residents are white, 35 percent are black and about 13 percent are Latino. CMPD officers, however, are more than 75 percent white. Many have argued that these demographics lead to a policing dynamic rife with racial hostility that results in instances of police brutality against residents of color.
Wednesday morning, while calling for calm in response to days of protests, Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts told reporters, “In Charlotte, we have a long history of working together to solve problems.” The city’s history suggest, however, that’s not entirely true—especially when it comes to the police and its black residents.