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Cincinnati’s first African American police officer may not have been

Updated: Feb. 10, 2020 at 6:39 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - When Henry Hagerman joined the Cincinnati Police Department in 1884, he became the department’s first African American police officer.

That, at any rate, is the story that’s been told, and it’s one that’s been accepted for almost a century because there’s been so little that says otherwise. At the department and in the annals of African American history, the words might as well be written in stone: First came Hagerman.

But here’s the thing—that may not be true.

Hagerman might not have been hired in 1884 after all. More importantly, he might not have been the city’s first African American anything.

Retired Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Stephen Kramer worked at the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum on Reading Road.

“Henry Hagerman, we believe, is the first black police officer in the Cincinnati Police Department,” Kramer said.

Kramer says the museum keeps an account of all CPD officers hired after April 1, 1886. Problematically, they don’t have records before that because the state shut down the entire department due to corruption scandals.

Most of what we know about the department’s African American history prior to 1886 comes from a book by Wendell Dabney published 40 years later titled “Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens.” Dabney’s research says Hagerman was an officer in 1884.

“We do know he existed,” Kramer said of Hagerman, “because we have a picture of him. We also know that in that picture he is wearing a Cincinnati police uniform with a Cincinnati police belt. But he’s wearing a badge that we know predates any existing badge going back to 1886. So it makes sense that he was here in 1884, but we just can’t prove it.”

In other words, the Hagerman theory—what doesn’t rely on Dabney’s research—is based primarily on inference.

Stephen Headley, reference librarian at the Cincinnati Public Library, takes an opposing view.

Headley points to newspaper articles archived

His name was Hiram Carroll.

The Commercial Gazette wrote in July 1884: “One colored gentleman, Mr. Hiram Carroll, has been appointed on the police force. This is the first appointment of a colored man ever made on the regular force of this city.”

There is no picture of Carroll, but what he lacks in photographic evidence, he makes up for in press clippings. Meanwhile, mentions of Hagerman are few and far between. And where his name appears, it only does further damage to his case.

“Henry Hagerman was sworn in yesterday as a special policeman,” the Gazette wrote, not in 1884, but in 1885.

Carroll’s employment, if it ever took place, apparently had the lifespan of a mayfly.

That, says Headley, is the big unsolved question.

“I believe he is mentioned in a number of papers as being appointed,” Headley explained. “Now, whether he actually served? Because even another paper said he was out by August.”

The rationale? According to one clipping, Carroll was fired for being “three-quarters of an inch too short.”

In sum, to put it mildly, there is more we don’t know about the city’s first African American police officer than what we do. That, alas, is the way history is sometimes—less a looking glass than a roiling pot of Cincinnati chili you’ll never get to the bottom of.

Was it Hagerman? Or was it Carroll? The debate continues.

Good that it does, though, if it enlists us to remember them better.

CLICK HERE if you’d like to learn more about the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum.

CLICK HERE if you’d like to learn more about The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

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