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In Unmarked Grave, a Forgotten Chapter of LAPD

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 75 years, the body of Officer Charles P. Williams has lain in an unmarked grave, his sacrifice to the city forgotten, his place in Los Angeles Police Department history unnoticed.

This month, all of that will change.

Later this month, a ceremony will commemorate Williams’ death. This week, a headstone was placed at his grave site, inscribed with the words his supervisor used to eulogize Williams after a gunman outside a brothel cut short the young vice officer’s life in 1923: “His achievements in the enforcement of the law will forever be a beacon of light.”

That marker does more than give a long-dead officer his due; it rewrites the history of the LAPD and the place it holds for black police officers.

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LAPD documents have long recorded Oscar Joel Bryant as the first black officer slain in the line of duty, in 1968. Those same records noted Williams’ earlier death, but, because of a photographic mix-up, they depicted him as white. Recently, however, a dogged police researcher, combing through old newspapers at the public library, made the stunning discovery that Williams was, in fact, black.

The revelation has shocked some officers in the LAPD’s inner circle, including its chief, and has provided a vivid, long-forgotten reminder that the service of black officers in a department sometimes castigated for its racism is neither recent nor shallow.

“I was surprised,” Chief Bernard C. Parks said. “But just like any inequity, it feels good to make things right, to make history whole again.”

Rewriting history, however, is not without its costs.

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For decades, Bryant has symbolized the ultimate price African American officers have paid to protect the city. It is Bryant, not Williams, who is mentioned in reverent tones. The police association that fights for the rights of black officers was named in Bryant’s honor, not Williams’.

Nevertheless, as any police officer will tell you, the facts are the facts.

“The record needs to be set straight,” said Sgt. John Thomas, who made the discovery. He said he does not want to take anything away from Bryant’s legacy, but “history needs to be corrected. Williams’ story needs to be told.”

To Sgt. Leonard Ross, the current president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Assn., the discovery of Williams’ death speaks volumes about the way the LAPD historically has treated black officers.

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“His death points to the fact that black officers have made great contributions and suffered great losses, yet they’ve been overlooked by the department,” Ross said, adding that the name of the association will not be changed.

“When you review black history in the LAPD there are only two emotions: sadness and anger,” Ross said.

The first black officer joined the LAPD in 1886, 17 years after the department became a paid police force. Thirty years later, the first black female officer joined the agency. The number of black officers grew in relation to the burgeoning black population, particularly around the turn of the century. In those days, they were restricted to working in the black communities, first in the area that is known today as the Central Division and later in the Newton Division.

In those days, the downtown areas were sometimes referred to at the LAPD as the “ghetto divisions.”

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Black Officers Were Isolated in the Past

Although black officers eventually acquired equal professional status within the LAPD, racism persisted. Some white officers were open about their ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Others refused to acknowledge black officers’ presence. Blacks only were partnered with each other; if one partner did not show up for work, the other was sent home.

Even when Chief Parks joined the department 34 years ago, he and other black officers were isolated from the white, male mainstream. They were given opportunities for advancement, but not encouraged to take them. It was partly because of those obstacles that the Oscar Joel Bryant Assn. was formed, in fact, and one of its founders was none other than Parks.

Nonetheless, in the days that Charles Williams joined the LAPD, the job was a coveted one for blacks, well-paying and well-respected within the community.

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For Williams, a former waiter, the job helped him buy a house in Los Angeles and provide for his wife and young son.

On the cool, breezy night of Jan. 13, 1923, Williams had been on the job less than three years when he reported to work. Like other evenings, that one started off with the 35-year-old officer and his partner working the undercover vice detail along Central Avenue, the heart of the city’s black community.

About 9:30 p.m., a resident flagged down the officers--apparently realizing they were police officers although they were undercover--and told them that an armed man was threatening the lives of residents of a house at 1101 E. 8th St.

Being vice officers, the men knew the house was a brothel. What they didn’t know was that the man waving his revolver at people was a vigilante of sorts, trying to rid the neighborhood of prostitution. That man, identified in old, microfilmed police records and newspaper accounts as John Pryor, had even telephoned police headquarters shortly before the officers responded to complain about the prostitution activity and said he would be awaiting the arrival of officers.

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Meanwhile, Williams, his partner and the person who flagged them down were driving to the location. Along the way, their car broke down and Williams decided to walk to the house to handle the disturbance. His partner stayed with the car.

As Williams rounded the corner of 8th Street and Stanford Avenue, he saw Pryor and ordered him to put his hands up. Pryor, apparently not realizing Williams was an officer, turned and fired two rounds, striking Williams in the abdomen.

Williams managed to squeeze off one shot, hitting Pryor in the leg as he fled. Williams was taken to a local hospital and died.

Black officers may have been marginalized from the LAPD in those days, but the death of any officer struck a deep chord even then.

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When then-Chief Louis D. Oaks was awakened with the news of the shooting, he got out of bed and personally led a manhunt for Williams’ killer. Shortly thereafter, Pryor was arrested at his home. He later confessed to the shooting, but said he believed he was acting in self-defense. Police records are not clear on what became of Pryor.

Williams was buried in what appears to have been a segregated section of Evergreen cemetery in East Los Angeles. Newspaper accounts of the funeral said it was well attended by city “dignitaries,” Chief Oaks and “42 of the department’s colored uniformed officers.”

Despite the elaborate burial services for a black man in those days, a headstone was never placed on his grave. Sgt. Thomas said he believes it may have been too expensive for Williams’ widow to buy one, considering that the police pension back then amounted to about $1,000.

Name Similarity Apparently Led to Mix-Up of Photos

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After finding the newspaper clips of Williams, Thomas combed through department records and other found documents supporting his discovery. Williams’ personnel packet confirms that he was killed in the line of duty. His employee record was clean, except for one brush with the LAPD disciplinary system, which indicates that he was accused of “threatening” a waiter and other restaurant patrons after being refused service because he was black.

Surprisingly, when Thomas went to see if Williams’ name was included on a memorial honoring fallen officers outside police headquarters at Parker Center, he found that it had been. Department pictures of the slain officers, however, contain the photograph of a white officer under Williams’ name.

“Apparently there was a white officer named Charles Williams at one time, and department officials who were putting the records together thought he was the one who was killed,” Thomas said. “They were wrong.”

Thomas, who has researched other aspects of black history at the LAPD, including a long-forgotten baseball team, said he searched for Williams’ relatives to learn more about the man, but was only able to locate a third cousin living in Texas.

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When Thomas started explaining the oversight to other LAPD officials, they were stunned. The Los Angeles Memorial Foundation stepped forward to pay for a headstone for Williams’ grave.

On July 29, the LAPD officially will unveil the newly lain headstone.

Having learned the error of his predecessors, Thomas is cautious about laying claim to Williams’ place as the first black LAPD officer to be killed in the line of duty.

“I believe there may have been others before him,” Thomas said. “Those were rough days in the city back then, and the record keeping was not the best. . . . We may never really be certain who was the first.”

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