The First African-American Detectives, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, and the Fate of Reconstruction
When police departments in the mid-twentieth-century appointed African-American detectives, the nation took note. Through countless books, movies, and television shows, detectives had become the most glamorous figures in law enforcement, and the appointment of black detectives–first in the North and then in the South–was seen as a sign of a transforming society. Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night became iconic. But few commentators noted at the time that the trailblazing African- American detectives of the civil rights era were not the first black detectives in American History. That honor goes to the black “special officers,” as detectives were often called, who served in a handful of cities in the South during Reconstruction. In Reconstruction-era New Orleans, for example, John Baptiste Jourdain, Jordan Noble, and other black detectives investigated high-profile crimes including the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case of 1870.
Until the mid-1840s, American urban police forces did not employ detectives at all; before then, the role of policemen, night watchmen, and town constables was to prevent crimes, not to solve them. Cities usually depended on common citizens to identify criminals. Even with the rise of professional policing in the 1830s, officers focused their energies on prevention and made most arrests based on evidence that witnesses had voluntarily brought forth. After Boston introduced the first detective squad in 1846, other American cities, including New Orleans, followed suit, and detectives soon became celebrated figures. Stories, both real and fictional, of whip-smart sleuths deciphering clues, using disguise, spotting telltale signs, and outsmarting wily criminals captured the American imagination. True crime tabloids like the National Police Gazette, as well as the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, helped propel the national obsession with detective work.
But until Reconstruction, all police detectives in the United States had been white. Even in 1870, police departments in the North still had not hired black patrolmen, let alone detectives. The Boston force would not add a black officer until 1878; in New York City, the ranks remained all-white until 1911. But in the South, five cities employed black officers. Reconstruction, it seemed, had brought real change; only a few years earlier, the idea of a black man serving on a southern police force in any capacity would have been unthinkable. But in 1870 in New Orleans, black detectives followed leads, interrogated white and black witnesses, and used their deductive skills in efforts to solve sensational crimes like the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case. More was at stake, of course, than simply solving crimes. If they succeeded, black detectives could help convince skeptical whites that biracial government could work. If they failed, however, they would arm the critics who demanded the restoration of white supremacy.