In 1889, Robert William Stewart became one of the first Black police officers ever hired in California.
He had traveled far to get there. Mr. Stewart was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1850 and was freed after the Civil War. He worked his way across the United States before joining the Los Angeles Police Department, which had never hired a Black officer before.
Despite frequent harassment, Mr. Stewart stayed on the force until 1900, when a white teenager accused him of sexual assault. He never regained his badge during his lifetime, even after a jury acquitted him.
But last week, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted unanimously to reinstate Mr. Stewart, recognizing the injustice of his termination and naming a room after him at Police Headquarters.
“This was one way we could show that Black folks in this country have made a difference,” said William Briggs, the police commissioner who brought the motion for reinstatement. “Mr. Stewart, during his tenure with the L.A.P.D., had an exemplary record.”
But the recognition rang hollow to some, who said they preferred to focus on rooting out racism in 2021. Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the city’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, said that righting historical wrongs was a matter of deeds, not just words and renamed rooms.
“If they’re talking about remedying something from history,” she said, “there needs to be substance behind it.”
The details about Mr. Stewart’s life were largely unknown to the public until a few years ago, when an amateur historian, Mike Davison, stumbled across the officer’s name while researching a building that had once served as Police Headquarters.
Intrigued, Mr. Davison, 59, scoured the internet for more details. He eventually compiled dozens of photographs and newspaper clippings in a voluminous blog post in 2016. Rita Knecht, 82, a retired L.A.P.D. lieutenant, helped him with genealogical research. (Among her findings: Mr. Stewart did not appear to have any living descendants.)
Their work soon captured the attention of the Los Angeles Police Museum, which featured Mr. Stewart’s story in newsletters in 2016 and 2017. Last year, Spectrum News 1 in Los Angeles reported on Mr. Davison’s work, bringing it to an even wider audience.
Mr. Davison had not expected his work to lead to an official reinstatement. “I’m just a history nerd who found something that no one else had found,” he said.
According to the newspaper clippings on Mr. Davison’s blog, Mr. Stewart and another man, Joseph Henry Green, became the Los Angeles Police Department’s first Black officers in 1889.
Little is known about Mr. Green, who appears to have been laid off in 1890. But Mr. Stewart was covered regularly by local news outlets, even before he became an officer. In an 1886 speech for the Colored Republican Club, of which he was a member, Mr. Stewart shared details about his life, including the years he was enslaved.
“I saw Negroes sold on blocks, like cattle,” he said, “and I know what a great boon freedom is.”
After the club helped Republicans secure a sweeping victory in the municipal elections of February 1889, its Black members sought more political power. Mr. Stewart and Mr. Green were appointed to the Police Department in March.
During Mr. Stewart’s tenure, news articles often used racist terms to describe him, even while praising his work and documenting white people’s hostility.
A jeering crowd gathered around Mr. Stewart in 1889, shortly after he became an officer, according to a report in The San Francisco Chronicle. “The fact of a colored man being in an official position and wearing the police insignia seemed to fascinate them,” it said.
In an article about a theft in 1895, The Los Angeles Times reported that “Officer Stewart is the only colored man on the force, but he has a record for bravery and good conduct that has never been questioned.” Two years later, the paper reported that “the burly policeman sunk his Ethiopian heels into the cobble stones” moments before he single-handedly stopped a team of runaway mules dragging a wagon down Los Angeles Street.
One evening in May 1900, Mr. Stewart was arrested by his colleagues. He had been accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old white girl named Grace Cunningham while on duty. The police commission voted to fire him in June. He was acquitted by a jury seven months later.
“I’m sure he probably did whatever you had to do to be a good officer, and that didn’t matter because he was a Black man accused,” said Paula Minor, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles who focuses on police accountability.
She saw Mr. Stewart’s reinstatement as a symbolic gesture — one that activists hadn’t asked for. “I feel like the L.A.P.D. just did this because it was Black History Month,” she said. “What does this do to move forward our needs and our demands? Nothing.”
Over the past year, widespread protests against police brutality and racism have underlined activists’ demands, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, to hold law enforcement accountable and defund the police.
Last month, the Los Angeles Police Department opened an internal investigation after an image of George Floyd, the Black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis last year, was circulated in the department in a valentine-like format with the words “You take my breath away.”
The department has also faced questions this year about a program of random traffic stops in South Los Angeles and other neighborhoods, a tactic that The Los Angeles Times had previously found disproportionately affected Black drivers.
Dr. Abdullah also said that the decision to honor Mr. Stewart seemed like a distraction from more pressing injustices. (The day after the commission’s vote, she helped start a campaign to challenge the power of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the influential police association that has resisted efforts to defund the department.)
“I think that it’s really important that they get to the current racism of the L.A.P.D.,” she said of the commission, “and what’s being demanded of them by Black folks now.”
Commissioner Briggs said that after Mr. Stewart was reinstated, public feedback had been positive.
“We have ongoing problems that need to be corrected, and part of that correction, I believe, is correcting past wrongs,” he said. “This is one step in the right direction. It’s not the only.”
He added: “There’s a national discussion about how our lives, as Black people, really do matter. This is bringing to light someone who was Black, who did make a difference.”
After he was fired from the Police Department in 1900, Mr. Stewart remained in Los Angeles. Mr. Davison’s research found that he worked as a laborer and a janitor before he died of prostate cancer in 1931 at age 81, leaving behind a wife and son. The death was covered by The California Eagle, a Black-owned newspaper, which called Mr. Stewart a pioneer who was “known far and wide for his staunch and dependable character” and “honored for his integrity and public spirited citizenship.”
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