Patrolman William M. Tucker, #45: Cleveland’s First Black Police Officer

Patrolman William M. Tucker
Patrolman William M. Tucker #45 is believed to be the first black officer appointed to the department on June 3, 1881. Patrolman Tucker worked one of the downtown beats out of Central Station, and retired on June 8, 1903.

William Manual Tucker was born a slave in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.  After the Civil War, he migrated to Cleveland where he raised a family, worked as a coachman and then became Cleveland’s first African American Police Officer.  Tucker’s great-great-granddaughter, Carolyne Wiggins, conducted extensive research into her family history and wrote a biography that included Patrolman Tucker’s journey.

“In my grandmother’s living room, hanging above an easy chair, is a portrait of a man whose appearance is not only handsome, but distinguished as well.  I often gazed at the portrait, and finally one day became curious enough to ask about it.  My grandmother told me the man in the portrait is William Manual Tucker, her grandfather.  ‘That makes him your great-great- grandfather,’ she said.  At first, I couldn’t believe it because I thought photographs were an invention of the twentieth century, and certainly Black people didn’t have their pictures taken that much, after all the photograph is over one-hundred years old now.”

Wiggins’ research revealed that Officer Tucker headed north after the Civil War. On the way, he met Colonel John F. Herrick, Commander of the Twelfth Ohio Calvary.   Colonel Herrick offered Tucker a job cleaning up around camp.   A friendship developed and Herrick invited Tucker to travel with him to Cleveland and offered him the position of a coachman for the Herrick family.  After his wedding, Tucker’s new wife, Elizabeth Whitfield Tucker, encouraged him to find more respectable work.  John Herrick, then serving on the Cleveland Police Department Board of Commissioners, suggested Tucker to apply for a position as a police officer.  Tucker agreed..

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on June 3rd, 1881 “A vacancy existing in the force and it being Commissioner Sprankle’s term to nominate he proposed the name of William Tucker, who when introduced proved to be a colored man.  The Ballot resulted in a unanimous vote for his appointment.  Tucker is the first colored man ever appointed on the police force.” 

Plain Dealer, June 3, 1881

Tucker’s appointment as the first black officer in the department was not supported by everyone. Opponents made false claims about his ability to fulfill the job requirements, claiming, among other things, that he couldn’t read and write. But others came to his defense, including the editorial board of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and local black residents.

Plain Dealer, June 8, 1881
Plain Dealer, June 10, 1881

Despite pressure to decline the appointment, Tucker joined the police force, going on duty at the 7th Precinct on June 11, 1881. Over his twenty-two year career with the Cleveland police, Tucker served in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th and 11th Precincts.

Plain Dealer, June 13, 1886
The 7th Precinct Station. Photo taken in 1898, after Tucker had moved to a new precinct.

Life was not always easy for the Tucker family and his prominence as the first black police officer meant that local newspapers reported on the incidents. The Tucker children were involved in several accidents over the years.  In 1890, son Charles received several severe abrasions on his head when the cable car he was riding in made a sudden stop throwing him against a glass window.  The following year, William and Elizabeth’s 10-year-old daughter was struck by a cable car at the corner of Dunham and Lexington Streets, suffering a severe scalp wound.   William Tucker Jr., a teamster at the time, was seriously injured in 1896 when the wagon he was driving down Steinway Avenue hill ran into the horse.  The horse became unmanageable and the wagon crashed into a tree.  A tree limb broke loose and fell on William’s leg, breaking it. In 1899 the family was quarantined when a son was one of four students at Dunham School who contracted smallpox.

In July of 1898 the worst incident occurred.  William Jr., who had become a brick layer, was working on the new Water Works Tunnel under Lake Erie when there was an explosion.  The thick, oily smoke that filled the tunnel trapped workers inside and prevented rescue attempts. Among the first people to respond to the scene, Patrolman Tucker remained on the site, day and night, awaiting word from the rescue teams. 

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer on July 13th, “He said that he had slight hope that his son might still be alive and would willingly go to his assistance if given permission.”  After three days, Officer Tucker finally returned to his home, without his son.  On Friday, July 16th, the remaining bodies were recovered and transported to the County Morgue.  Services for young Willian Tucker were held at the family residence, 41 Astor Avenue and he was laid to rest in Lake View Cemetery. 

Plain Dealer, July 15, 1898
Plain Dealer, July 15, 1898

After twenty two years of service, Patrolman Tucker was placed on the Pension List on the recommendation of Police Surgeon F.B. Norton on June 9th, 1903.  He was diagnosed with rheumatism and bronchitis.

Plain Dealer, May 30, 1903
Tucker’s Oath Of Office

According to Carolyne, “William Tucker retired from the Cleveland police force receiving full pension.  He spent his retirement at his home at 6719 Lawnview Ave.  The last two years of his life were spent suffering from several illnesses.  He died late Saturday, January 23, 1915 after suffering kidney failure (interstitial nephritis).  He is buried in Lake View Cemetery along side his wife and other family members.”

Commemorative plaque installed at the Cleveland Police headquarters, 1300 Ontario Street

Written by Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum volunteer Commander Robert Cermak, Ret.

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