For much of the last century, the official record was that the first African-American police officer in Boston wasn’t hired until after the great police strike in 1919.
Then, a while back, Margaret Sullivan, the Boston police archivist, found an obscure reference in a book written by a 19th-century police chief to “the first colored officer” being appointed in 1878.
There was no name, so Sullivan, who is a civilian but would make a very fine detective, kept looking. She compared the police payroll, which listed names, with the 1880 Census, which listed race, and she found Horatio Julius Homer.
Then she started looking for descendants and she found Homer’s granddaughters, Lillian and Maria Homer, who live in Cambridge. In February, Sullivan asked the Homer sisters to meet her at the Parker House.
When the sisters got to the hotel, they found Police Commissioner Ed Davis; Dan Linskey, the police superintendent in chief; Bob Anthony, a cop in East Boston; and Sullivan waiting for them.
“We found your grandfather,” Ed Davis said. “He was a very important man.”
Sullivan found the existence of Sergeant Horatio Julius Homer buried deep in the files of the Boston Police Department and newspaper archives and the Boston Public Library. Then, Anthony found the body of Sergeant Horatio Julius Homer, buried in an unmarked grave in Brighton.
“It was the last gasp of an enlightened period in the city,” Sullivan said. “There wasn’t another black officer appointed over the next 30 years.”
Horatio Homer was a renaissance man. He played 10 musical instruments. He memorized a poem each day, and, given his name, was especially interested in Greek literature. He was a Republican, the party of Lincoln, and belonged to a black man’s political club.
All of this was unearthed by Sullivan and Anthony, part of an effort by the Police Department to learn more about its history as the oldest police force in the United States. Davis is a history buff.
Homer is believed to have been the second African-American police officer in the United States, appointed two years after a black officer was hired in Cleveland.
And on Saturday at 10 a.m., in Evergreen Cemetery, a great oversight will be corrected, and a piece of Boston history will be recognized. A headstone will be unveiled over the grave of Sergeant Horatio Julius Homer, a cop who read poetry and carried secrets, from the commissioner’s office all the way to his grave.