Screen grab from youtube. Composite image by Katie McCarthyCoffee or Die Magazine.
Los Angeles Police Department Officer Robert William Stewart was posthumously reinstated as a police officer on Feb. 23, 2021, more than 120 years after he was wrongfully fired.
Stewart and Joseph H. Green were the first Black policemen at the department and possibly the first in California, joining the force together on March 30, 1889. Last week, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners voted to reinstate Stewart, and they renamed the Central Area station roll-call room to the Robert William Stewart Roll Call Room, according to myNewsLA.com.
“I recognize that none of these actions can restore in death what was denied Policeman Stewart in life. But I firmly believe that correcting this wrong can serve as one of many steps on the path to true reconciliation and progress,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said.
Stewart was accused of raping a white 15-year-old female in 1900, and the LAPD terminated his employment. According to reporting from Michael Davison, a Los Angeles-based historian and author of the Previous Los Angeles blog, Stewart was acquitted of all charges after two trials. Despite being cleared, he was not rehired by the LAPD.
This wasn’t the first time that the department had failed to treat Stewart equitably. Stewart and Green were appointed as policemen only after the Colored Republican Club, fresh off of a successful city election, pressured the LAPD to diversify. At first, the two officers were assigned to janitorial duties around the police station, and then to directing traffic. Very little is known about Green’s history at the department, but he was released from the LAPD as part of a reduction in force in 1890, and he died in 1903.
Stewart — who was born into slavery in Kentucky, only experiencing freedom after the Civil War’s conclusion — fought for better assignments and was eventually moved over to patrol. Soon he was well known in the community. One night he was on patrol, when he came across a young female named Grace Cunningham, who was out past the city’s 9 p.m. curfew for youths under 17. Stewart scolded the girl for being out past curfew, but Cunningham later claimed he had requested to walk her home, then raped her.
“If I were to meet my God in the next minute, I would swear that I have not harmed that young girl,” Stewart said in court, reported the Los Angeles Herald, according to Davison’s blog.
After the first trial ended with a deadlocked vote, a second trial was conducted that cleared Stewart of all charges. Stewart was never reappointed as a policeman, lost his chance at a pension, and continued working as a laborer or janitor until his death from prostate cancer in 1931 at the age of 81.
Coffee or Die Magazine reached out to the LAPD as well as Chief John Thomas of the University of Southern California Department of Public Safety for comment, but neither responded prior to publication. Thomas, who retired from the LAPD after a 21-year career there, studies the history of Black officers at the LAPD.
Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.
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