The recent furor over the stocking of Black Lives Matter T-shirts at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center shines a light on racial issues in Little Rock and particularly on West Ninth Street, the historic heart of the black community. Over the years, West Ninth Street has been a venue showcasing black achievements while also providing a stark reminder of racial divides and intolerance. The burning of lynching victim John Carter at the intersection of Ninth and Broadway in 1927 is one of the most well-know instances of racial violence in the city. But it is not the only one. Seventy-four years ago this month, the shooting of a black army sergeant by a white city policemen on West Ninth Street caused uproar in the city and led to the appointment of the first black police officers in Little Rock in the modern era.
The incident began on March 22, 1942, when Pvt. Albert Glover of the 92nd Engineers was on West Ninth Street with a weekend pass from Camp Robinson. Enjoying his free time rather too much, Glover got drunk. When two white military policemen sought to take him back to base, he resisted. Two white city policemen, Abner J. Hay and George Henson, intervened by beating Glover over the head with their nightsticks. The military policemen took Glover to a nearby first aid station for treatment. The altercation drew a mainly black crowd of about 400 people. City policeman Henson stood outside the first aid station with his gun drawn and trained upon them. Inside, Glover remained uncooperative. He refused to submit to treatment and insisted that he would not leave the downtown area until he found “the boy I came into town with.” The military police dragged him outside to a truck waiting to take him back to Camp Robinson.
Just as Glover exited, Sgt. Thomas P. Foster, a 25-year-old black North Carolinian, also on a pass from Camp Robinson, saw the commotion. He pushed through the crowd and demanded to know why the two white military policemen were being so rough. He told them he had direct orders from his superiors to investigate and take charge of any incidents occurring in town involving the men of the 92nd Engineers. One of the military policemen told Foster he could investigate later. The other offered to take Foster to speak with a superior. Foster stood his ground and insisted upon immediate justification for the heavy-handed treatment of Glover. The military policemen placed Foster under arrest and attempted to remove him from the scene. Each grabbed an arm and dragged Foster down West Ninth Street. Foster broke loose. They grabbed him again and a fight ensued.
The crowd that had formed outside the first aid station followed the struggle between Foster and the military policemen. Some demanded Foster’s release. Others attempted to free the sergeant. In the melee, one of the military policemen lost his nightstick and drew a pistol. When Foster saw the gun, he grabbed hold of its cylinder. The other military policeman then hit him over the head with his nightstick to make him let go. During the scuffle, the pistol went off, and city policeman Hay fired his gun in the air to clear the crowd. Foster pulled clear and stumbled across the road. A section of the crowd followed to find Foster backed up into an alcove in a churchyard.
Hay offered to go grab Foster and put him in the army truck. However, when military policemen parted the crowd, instead of apprehending Foster, Hay dived on top of him and another fight ensued. When it appeared that Foster was getting the better of Hay, the other policemen weighed in with their nightsticks, hitting Foster over the head repeatedly until he let go of the officer. Hay immediately stood up and emptied his gun into Foster’s prostrate body, hitting him with four shots, three in the stomach, one in the arm, with a fifth bullet going astray. He then filled and lighted his pipe, blowing smoke over the dying soldier’s body while an ambulance arrived. At the hospital, doctors operated on Foster, but he died a few hours later. While Foster received treatment, city policemen flooded into the black downtown area of West Ninth Street to quell what the Arkansas Gazette termed a “riot” that followed.
The following day, investigations of the incident began. In Little Rock, Chief of Police J.A. Pitcock and deputy coroner Dr. C.C. Reed Jr. took charge. At Camp Robinson, a Board of Inquiry was set up to determine if Foster had died in the line of duty. While military investigations were still underway, within three days the city investigation ruled the shooting a “justifiable homicide.” Reed said that statements given by the military police corroborated Hay’s testimony “in every detail” that Foster had grabbed Hay’s nightstick and was about to attack him when the policeman shot in self-defense. As far as the white authorities in Little Rock were concerned, this ended the matter.
The reaction from the black community was very different. The Arkansas State Press, owned by L.C. and Daisy Bates, reported the shooting of Foster as one of the “most bestial murders in the annals of Little Rock tragedies.” A Negro Citizens’ Committee (NCC) was formed to investigate. The NCC formally delivered its report findings on Sunday, March 29, at the First Baptist Church in Little Rock. A large crowd gathered for the meeting, with blacks from all sections of the state turning up to hear the evidence. Secretary of the NCC, J.H. McConico, read out the principal findings of the investigation. First, Foster was unarmed and lying on the ground when Hay shot him and “regardless of what had transpired previously, the shooting was unjustifiable.” Second, the white military police stood “idly by” and did not offer proper protection. Third, no rioting had taken place in the aftermath of the shooting as reported in the white newspapers. The meeting ended with a resolution to send the report, along with a petition for a more thorough investigation of events, to the mayor of Little Rock, the Little Rock prosecuting attorney and the U.S. district attorney. Copies also went to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the commanding general at Camp Robinson.
Little Rock prosecuting attorney Sam Robinson promised a thorough investigation of Foster’s death. Yet no fewer than four subsequent city reports returned the same verdict of justifiable homicide. Continued pressure from the Arkansas State Press and the NAACP’s national office, together with the national news headlines that the case began to attract, finally helped to bring federal intervention. Inspector General of the War Department Virgil L. Peterson reviewed the Camp Robinson investigation and found significant conflict between its findings and those of city officials. Although the Camp Robinson report stated that Foster’s death was a result of “misconduct” since he “unlawfully resisted arrest,” it also criticized the military policemen’s handling of the situation with Pvt. Glover. More importantly, the report found fault with the actions of Hay, who “was too hasty in opening fire [and] his further action of firing three more shots into the body of Sergeant Foster and then lighting his pipe nearly caused a riot and are major factors in the present state of tension existing between the two races in this area at the present time.” Peterson’s office was informally advised that the Civil Rights Section of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice was interested in the case since the circumstances surrounding the shooting seemed to be “far from justifiable.”
In late 1942, the case against Hay came before a federal grand jury. U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle sent a special assistant, Frank Patton, to present the case. On the opening day of proceedings, blacks packed a crowded courtroom. Judge Thomas C. Trimble advised the 23 jurors, including only three token blacks, to use “common sense” in returning a verdict. Trimble said they should only indict Hay if it “would … serve some useful purpose.” After hearing testimony from 25 of the 43 witnesses called, including 10 blacks, it took just two days for the jury to reach its verdict. The shooting, the grand jury reported, had been “investigated, considered, and ignored” by a vote of 19 to 4. Testimony from white witnesses that indicated Hay had only fired at Foster when under attack partly helped to secure the police officer’s release. Of more influence in the case, the attorney general’s office concluded, was the “strong racial sentiment” involved, together with the ploy of the defense attorney in announcing that Hay had enrolled into the Army. These two factors — the racial element and the sense of not serving “some useful purpose” by indicting a white soldier — allowed Hay to escape scot-free.
The verdict of the grand jury left Little Rock’s black citizens far from satisfied. The Arkansas State Press called for the instatement of black police officers in black areas. The campaign proved so popular that white city businessmen, fearful of the negative impact it might have on the city’s image, attempted to put the paper out of circulation by withholding advertising revenue. When that failed, they offered a direct bribe to editor L.C. Bates to let up on the criticism. The Bateses weathered the boycott, refused the bribe, and continued to campaign for black police officers. When a new detachment of black troops arrived at Camp Robinson in August 1942, their white commanding officer Maj. Richard Donovan joined the Bateses in calling for change. Donovan told businessmen that white city police officers should “make less use of the night-stick technique of reasoning with black soldiers.” Donavan also advocated the hiring of black police officers. The pressure finally led to the appointment of black police officers to patrol West Ninth Street, over substantial opposition from the Little Rock Police Association (LRPA). The LRPA complained, in an effort to guard total white supremacy on the force, that black police officers would not strictly police black areas. Eventually, eight black policemen were hired with limited powers of arrest.
The black officers hired were not the first to patrol Little Rock. It seems that blacks had played some role in policing since the city’s early founding, a presence that significantly increased during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. However, as Jim Crow racial segregation took hold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the presence of black officers rapidly declined. It hit zero by 1920. The reappointment of black officers paved the way for a new era of black policing. The number of black officers slowly expanded. In 1978, the Little Rock Black Police Officers Association was formed. Today, Little Rock has a black chief of police, Kenton Buckner. Nevertheless, despite the progress made, issues of race and policing, as the current Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, remain contentious both in the city and throughout the nation.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of UALR’s Institute on Race and Ethnicity.