The First Black Officer to Die in the Line of Duty
(EOW: April 12, 1870)
Our Black History Month series begins with a connection between Black History and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Today we honor Officer William Johnson who – according to our records – is the first African American officer to die in the line of duty as a Law Enforcement officer. His name is etched along with the names of over 22,000 fallen officers on the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, due to the 150+ year gap between the date of Officer Johnson’s death and today, not much is known about Officer Johnson during his career. However, we are going to do our best to tell his story as his sacrifice deserves to be honored.
William Johnson on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, 24-E, Row 23
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
Officer William Johnson served with the Jacksonville (FL) Police Department, and was sworn in on an unknown date in 1863 – two years into the American Civil War. During the Civil War, Florida was part of the American Confederacy, and seceded from the Union on January 10, 1861. Throughout the war, and ultimately after the Confederacy’s demise, the city of Jacksonville saw itself occupied by Union Forces until 1869. Because of the occupation of the city, law enforcement was controlled by the Union Army rather than a local sheriff. Before the Civil War – beginning in 1845 – a town ordinance required all free men in the city of Jacksonville to participate in evening patrol duty. Since Officer Johnson was sworn in as an officer in 1863, prior to Union Army occupation and after the passing of the town ordinance, it is likely that he was a free man, rather than enslaved man. Officer Johnson’s watch was unfortunately short-lived, as he died in the line of duty on April 12, 1870 – the same month when Dave Pettis became the city’s first ever African American elected to the city’s office of the Board of Police Commissioners. By the end of the 19th century, the Jacksonville Police Department would be composed primarily of African American officers.
Officer William Johnson’s career as a Jacksonville Police Officer may have only lasted 7 years, but his legacy lives on in Washington, DC, where his name is immortalized on the stone walls of the memorial that sits proudly across the street from the museum. Officer Johnson earned his place on the wall when he responded to a call for service where he encountered a very strong and intoxicated male.
The man picked up Officer Johnson and threw him to the ground, causing fatal injuries which led to his death two days later; he was only 35 years old. Due to the era in which he served, we do not have any verified photographs of Officer William Johnson, but his sacrifice is fondly remembered by his department, and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement.