Battle Creek’s First African American Police Officer Was An Influence To Southwest Michigan
On this day in Michigan’s history: John W. Patterson was born in Omaha, Nebraska on March 2, 1872. Though he wasn’t born in Michigan, John would soon move to Michigan and become an influential part of Battle Creek’s history; and even potentially protect the future social culture of Michigan with a single letter.
New to Michigan
Though he moved to Michigan to begin a career with the local prominent Negro League baseball team the Page Fence Giants, in 1907 Patterson retired from playing to become the head coach for Battle Creek High School’s baseball team; which he led to a state championship in his first year of coaching.
Then in 1909, Patterson became the first African American patrolman for Battle Creek’s police force. Having connected with the local youths, law enforcement, and overall community John W. Patterson was on his way to becoming an influential figure for Southwest Michigan. Without trying, the local community knew they could find and depend on Patterson, who would be on the corner of Capital and Michigan avenues or “bank corners” as the locals called it. Patterson would continue his dedication to the community through 30+ more years of service.
Though, in 1940, while assisting in the capture of an escaped patient from the local Veterans Administration facility, Patterson would suffer a rupture in his groin that would become infected and take his life at the age of 68.
At the time, John was probably most known in the community for his friendship with boxing champ Jack Johnson. When Johnson would travel through Battle Creek for matches, he was at constant risk of being arrested or worse because of his winning Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1910. After earning this title, Johnson was actually arrested on January 14th, 1913 for traveling with his white wife as a violation to the Mann Act; which didn’t allow the “transporting of women across state lines under immoral purposes.”
After this incident, Patterson took it upon himself to begin picking Johnson up at the train station and housing him for the duration of his time in Michigan as a way of ‘hiding’ him from officials.
A Letter That Packs a Punch
Even though Patterson has so many noteworthy contributions to Battle Creek and surrounding Michigan areas, his biggest impact would have to be protecting the mostly welcoming social culture Michigan had towards African Americans. Though Michigan adopted an 1883 law stating all forms of state sanctioned racial discrimination would no longer allow people to consider white, black, Indian, etc. as not equal, the beginning of World War I tested this law. In 1917, Camp Custer (now Fort Custer) was created to train American soldiers, most of which were southern boys.
With the influx of southern soldiers, ideals and temperaments began to clash in the otherwise mostly welcoming community. As local law enforcement, and a general friend to everyone in the community, Patterson took it upon himself to send a letter to the commander of Camp Custer, expressing the difficulties the new soldier's segregationist attitudes were causing. Writing that letter, in that time period, in that stressful of a world situation, was a huge risk for Patterson, but he was willing to risk his own safety for the overall good of the community.
Patterson has remained a part of Southwest Michigan’s history. In December 1999, a portion of the East State Street (which is adjacent to the police department headquarters) was renamed the John W. Patterson Way. Within recent years, Patterson’s dedication and involvement to the local community has been expressed through performances at Barn Theatre, Kellogg Community College, and perhaps most noteworthy the portrayal of Patterson in a tour at Marshall’s Oaklawn Cemetery.