It was long thought that the first Black police officer wasn’t hired in Boston until after the 1919 Boston police strike. Through the research of Margaret Sullivan, archivist for the Boston Police Department, we know that in 1878 Horatio J. Homer became Boston’s first Black police officer.
Born in Farmington, Connecticut in 1848, the year Connecticut abolished slavery, Homer’s first jobs were as a bellhop, waiter, steward on a steamboat, and Pullman Porter. Married at age 17, he and wife Sophia made their way to Boston where they settled in Brighton. People he worked with encouraged him to apply to the police department.
Homer was assigned to the Commissioner’s Office in Pemberton Square in a position normally held by a sergeant. On Sundays when the office was closed, he had the walking beat between Copley Square and the Boston Public Garden. It’s said he had to use force only once during his career.
The police force when Officer Homer was hired totaled 746. He became Boston’s first Black police sergeant in 1895. Five other Black officers were appointed to the BPD in the late 19th century but left the force by the early 1900s. Sgt. Homer was the lone Black officer for the last years of his career. The BPD grew to 1700 by the time he retired in 1919.
Horatio Homer was a Renaissance man. An accomplished musician, he could play numerous instruments including violin, flute, guitar and mandolin. According to a Boston Globe article during his life, he had “a remarkably sharp memory, built marvelous creations and memorized a poem a day.
Sophia Homer died in 1902. Sergeant Homer married Lydia Spriggs at St. Paul’s Church Camden Street, South End, now People’s Baptist Church, in 1903. They settled in an apartment in a brownstone at 868 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s South End neighborhood, a community with a bustling Black middle class. They had two sons, Horatio Julius Homer, Jr. and David Lawrence Homer.
As the children grew, Homer and his family moved to 82 Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury. Upon Sgt. Homer’s retirement in 1919, Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis said “During his long service, Sergeant Homer has performed his duties with uniform courtesy and strict attention to all the requirements of his exacting position. He will be missed by many citizens of Boston having business with the department and all connected with headquarters”.
Horatio J. Homer died in 1923. The Superintendent of Police and six uniformed officers represented the Boston Police Department when he was laid to rest at Brighton’s Evergreen Cemetery. Whatever marker the family erected did not last.
In 2010, Sgt. Homer’s granddaughters, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis joined and a large contingent of Boston police officers, Black officials and law enforcement personnel, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, and members of the public in honoring Sgt. Homer and dedicating a permanent grave marker. Police Officer Bob Anthony organized the ceremony, which was beautiful. Kevin Cullen wrote in the Boston Globe: “Lillian and Maria Homer found their long-lost grandfather–and the city found part of its long-lost history.”
by Tessil Collins and Alison Barnet with special thanks to Margaret R. Sullivan, Records Manager & Archivist, Boston Police Department