Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A New Turn For Racial History And A Family’s Pride

A New Turn For Racial History And A Family’s Pride

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Columnist | June 22, 2010

For much of the last century, the official record was that the first African-American police officer in Boston wasn’t hired until after the great police strike in 1919.

Then, a while back, Margaret Sullivan, the Boston police archivist, found an obscure reference in a book written by a 19th-century police chief to “the first colored officer’’ being appointed in 1878.

There was no name, so Sullivan, who is a civilian but would make a very fine detective, kept looking. She compared the police payroll, which listed names, with the 1880 Census, which listed race, and she found Horatio Julius Homer.

Then she started looking for descendants and she found Homer’s granddaughters, Lillian and Maria Homer, who live in Cambridge. In February, Sullivan asked the Homer sisters to meet her at the Parker House.

When the sisters got to the hotel, they found Police Commissioner Ed Davis; Dan Linskey, the police superintendent in chief; Bob Anthony, a cop in East Boston; and Sullivan waiting for them.

“We found your grandfather,’’ Ed Davis said. “He was a very important man.’’

Sullivan found the existence of Sergeant Horatio Julius Homer buried deep in the files of the Boston Police Department and newspaper archives and the Boston Public Library. Then, Anthony found the body of Sergeant Horatio Julius Homer, buried in an unmarked grave in Brighton.

Lillian and Maria Homer found their long-lost grandfather — and the city found part of its long-lost history.

Horatio Homer grew up on a farm in Farmington, Conn., but he was a born cop. When he was working on the railroad, there was a crash and he rescued passengers. When he worked on a steamship that sailed between Boston and Bangor, he caught a guy breaking into a cabin and held him for the cops.

He moved to Boston in 1873 and worked in a Lynn shoe factory, and then on the Boston-Bangor steamship before he was appointed as a patrolman on Christmas Eve 1878. He was promoted to sergeant in 1895.

Homer was assigned to headquarters and worked for a dozen police commissioners over a 40-year career. He was trusted with secrets. He handled the press. He was well-liked and so respected that up to a half-dozen black officers were hired, in large part on his recommendation, in the decade after his appointment.

“It was the last gasp of an enlightened period in the city,’’ Sullivan said. “There wasn’t another black officer appointed over the next 30 years.’’

Horatio Homer was a renaissance man. He played 10 musical instruments. He memorized a poem each day, and, given his name, was especially interested in Greek literature. He was a Republican, the party of Lincoln, and belonged to a black man’s political club.

He lived with his first wife in Brighton, but she died in 1902. He and his second wife, Lydia, moved to a brownstone on Massachusetts Avenue in the South End. They were part of Boston’s black middle class and attended Peoples Baptist Church on Tremont Street. Homer knew Frederick Douglass.

Homer was also a man of considerable vigor.

“He was 65 when our dad was born,’’ Lillian Homer said.

But at the age of 71, he developed stomach cancer and had to retire in 1919. He was given a pension of $875 a year, half his annual salary. He got to collect that pension for just four years before he died. The pension died with him, and Lydia was forced to move to Cambridge and become a laundress.

All of this was unearthed by Sullivan and Anthony, part of an effort by the Police Department to learn more about its history as the oldest police force in the United States. Davis is a history buff.

Until Sullivan started digging, the official record had been that Boston’s first black police officer didn’t join the force until 1919 — more than 40 years after Homer joined the force.

Homer is believed to have been the second African-American police officer in the United States, appointed two years after a black officer was hired in Cleveland.

After Sullivan found Homer’s records, Anthony went looking for his grave. The caretaker at Evergreen Cemetery showed him the grave on a map, but when Anthony walked to the site all he found was a snow-covered patch. He asked the caretaker to help him look. They realized the grave was unmarked. There was no stone, nothing to indicate that Boston’s first black police officer rested there.

“We didn’t know where he was buried,’’ Lillian Homer was saying. “Our father, David, Horatio’s son, died when we were very young, so we really had very little family history on this.’’

They had one photo, showing their grandfather in his police uniform.

“We knew he was a police officer, but we had no idea that he was the first African-American one,’’ Maria Homer said. “When Margaret told us the whole story, it was as if we had been given our whole family history. Everything fell into place.’’

On Thursday, at 6 p.m., Sullivan will give a lecture on Sergeant Homer’s life at the Dudley branch library, 65 Warren St., in Roxbury.

And on Saturday at 10 a.m., in Evergreen Cemetery, a great oversight will be corrected, and a piece of Boston history will be recognized. A headstone will be unveiled over the grave of Sergeant Horatio Julius Homer, a cop who read poetry and carried secrets, from the commissioner’s office all the way to his grave.

Lillian and Maria Homer will be in the front row.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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