In 1948, the city of Atlanta hired its first 8 black police officers. They were not allowed to wear their uniforms to or from work, they could not arrest white people, they could not drive a squad car or operate out of the police headquarters. If they uncovered a crime, they reported that to white police officers, who would investigate it when, and if, they chose. Many in the black community viewed them with suspicion. Darktown is Thomas Mullen’s fictional interpretation of this endeavor.
Historically, Henry Hooks, Claude Dixon, Ernest H. Lyons, Robert McKibbens, Willard Strickland, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, and John Sanders were the pioneers, who had to thread the needle of doing their jobs to the best of their ability without ‘causing’ white officers, many of whom were Klansmen, to riot at the sight of them. Mullen does a credible job of describing this thankless work through his fictional characters Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith. This is not an easy book to read, and sadly many of the excruciating interactions presented in the book have contemporary resonance. I started this book after reading The Coming of Age in Mississippi and began The Hate U Give shortly after finishing this book and they seem more like meditations on a theme than historically separate works. One scene that stays in my mind involved what seems like a straightforward decision to take a bus, but it explores the emotional and psychological toll that is exacted:
“Boggs rarely rode the bus…But today’s errand was a unique one, requiring him to make like the majority of Negroes in his city, and thus he subjected himself to the back of the bus. He subjected himself to the white driver’s occasional comments about Negroes… He subjected himself to the fact that the very road itself changed names from Boulevard to Monroe not because the road itself changed but because the southern length of it was a colored neighborhood and the northern length was white and therefore the people who lived on it should put different words on their return addresses.”
I quickly became invested in the lives of Boggs and Smith and observing their struggles – why did they persist as police officers with so little encouragement? How should they come to terms with their racist treatment at the hands of other police officers? How could they do their jobs when the barriers were so high?
The two men report a violent encounter between a very drunk white man and a young black woman and later discover her body. They decide to honor their roles as black police officers by investigating and solving this murder (which is quickly brushed under the carpet) at great personal risk.
This is a difficult, moving, horrifying book, that seems to capture the experience of the first black police officers in Atlanta with candor and sympathy. It certainly isn’t light reading, and by the end of the book, I was so anxious to get some resolution I could not put it down (for better and worse).