African American Police League Archives

Inspired by the Chicago premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson's opera BlueLyric has created a slate of public programs geared toward engaging audiences on topics addressed in the opera. 

In collaboration with the Chicago History Museum, Lyric is presenting curated selections from the African American Police League archives. We invite you to scroll down to learn more about the groundbreaking efforts of this organization, and the impact it had on the evolving relationship between Chicago's Black communities and the Chicago Police Department. 

Items that contain extensive text have been transcribed to improve readability. 

Please note this content engages with topics that may be sensitive or triggering, including racism, racial slurs, violence and mental illness.  

About the archives

Written by Julius Jones, assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum

In the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, people in Chicago and several cities across the United States responded with an explosion of unrest and despair, in which businesses were looted, buildings burned, and lives lost. Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley issued a “shoot-to-kill” order to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) for anyone found to be participating in the destruction of property. Daley later claimed that his remarks had been taken out of context, but the damage was done―not just in Chicago’s African American community, but among Black members of the CPD. The deteriorating relationship between law enforcement and African American citizens led CPD officers Edward “Buzz” Palmer, Renault Robinson, Curtis Cowsen, Willie Ware, Wilbur Crooks, and Jack Debonnett and a civilian, Tom Mitchell, to establish the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League (AAPL) in September of that year.

Almost immediately after the AAPL’s founding, its members were targeted for abuse and retribution. Palmer was ultimately forced out of the department due to increased harassment, and Robinson, who became the league’s first executive director, was suspended nearly one hundred times on dubious and false misconduct charges. Other early leaders of the AAPL, such as Patricia Hill and Howard Saffold, were targeted with abuse as well. In 1970, citing Robinson’s experiences, the AAPL successfully sued the CPD for its racially discriminatory practices, a case that was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court. As a result, the percentage of African American police officers in Chicago reached parity with the city’s population.

The AAPL also worked to improve the quality of policing in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods by documenting and investigating complaints of police brutality on behalf of community members. The league conducted training workshops open to all members of the police department on how to enforce the law with sensitivity and without bias. Finally, the AAPL served as pioneers in implementing community policing practices, establishing numerous community-based initiatives and partnering with neighborhood organizations.

The collection, housed at the Chicago History Museum, contains annual reports, court files, fundraising items, reports, correspondence, newsletters, police brutality report files, and publications and flyers relative to the ongoing work of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League (which was renamed the Afro-American Police League in 1979 and later, the African American Police League) and its education and action arm, the League to Improve the Community (LIC). Access to the collection is available through the CHM Research Center.

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Dr. Scholl Foundation

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