One Of LAPD’s 1st Black Officers Reinstated More Than 120 Years After His Firing

Seeking to correct an injustice from more than a century ago, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted to posthumously reinstate and honor one of LAPD’s first Black police officers.

Robert Stewart spent 11 years on the force before he was unjustly fired, the commission said.

The five-member police commission voted unanimously to reinstate Stewart, Richard Tefank, the executive director of the commission, told NPR.

Fred Booker, a special assistant to LAPD Chief Michel Moore, said Stewart was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1850 and eventually came to Los Angeles where he was one of two Black officers to join the department in 1889, according the Los Angeles Times.

The police department hired both Stewart and another Black officer, Joseph Henry Green, the same year, as there was pressure to diversify their ranks, Spectrum News reported. Both officers were relegated to custodial duties, such as cleaning the station. They were also assigned to direct traffic.

During his career, “almost any story that mentioned Stewart, even when it praised him, had some racist dig,” Los Angeles historian Mike Davison told Spectrum.

Booker said Stewart had an “exemplary career” with LAPD until 1900, when he was falsely accused of assaulting a white teenager, the Times reported. According to media reports, Stewart was accused of rape while he was out on patrol by a 15-year-old named Grace Cunningham.

Within two weeks of the accusation, Spectrum noted, the Board of Police Commissioners moved to terminate his employment in a 3-2 decision, even though he maintained his innocence.

Booker said the police commission at the time allowed his termination from the force before a trial had concluded.

After two trials, Stewart was acquitted. But he was not allowed to return to the LAPD and reportedly found jobs as a laborer and a janitor until his death in 1931, according to news site MyNewsLA.com.

“[T]hough he was ultimately acquitted of all charges, the same board of police commissioners refused to hire him back,” Booker told the Times.

Moore, the LAPD chief, told the commission this week that recognizing Stewart’s achievements will allow healing and reckoning for racial discrimination Stewart endured.

“When African Americans began working in this organization, there was still racism in the organization,” said Moore, according to Spectrum. “There was still racism in our country as we know there is today. How we handle that recognition is how we move forward.”

“In light of these circumstances, I am asking that the commissioners join the department in restoring Stewart’s legacy over the course of this Black History Month,” Moore added, as MyNewsLA reported.

The news site adds that the chief also proposed renaming the Central Area roll call room in Stewart’s honor.

“I recognize that none of these actions can restore in death what was denied Policeman Stewart in life,” Moore said.

“But I firmly believe that correcting this wrong can serve as one of many steps on the path to true reconciliation and progress.”

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