Black History Fun Fact Friday – Slave Patrols: A Brief History of American Policing

This post was originally published under another blog series Unfamiliar Faces: Lost to History. Due the current climate I have revised this post and re-categorized it under Black History Fun Facts.


Originally Published: July 14, 2015

Revised May 29, 2020

slave-patrols-police-origins

The tragic murder of George Floyd, who sadly joins the ranks of several unarmed black men killed by the police, has sparked outrage, protests, and unrest. Images and footage of the officer, Derek Chauvin (who had 18 prior complaints against him according to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Internal Affairs), kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he repeated the too familiar phrase, “I can’t breathe!” is both horrifying and heartbreaking.

In response to the looting taking place by protesters of Floyd’s death, American President Donald Trump went on to call the looters “Thugs,” commenting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The phrase comes from a 1967 quote used by Miami’s police chief, Walter Headley, in 1967, when he addressed his department’s “crackdown on … slum hoodlums,” according to a United Press International article from the time.

From the killing of Emmett Till in 1955 that sparked the Civil Rights Movement, to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing those four little girls in Birmingham Alabama in 1963 (Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11). From the 1965 Watts Riots that broke out over Marquette Frye, to the police officers who beat Rodney King in 1991 and the riots that broke out over their acquittal. From the killing of Trayvon Martin, Micheal Brown, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and many others, Black people are frustrated and crying out for redemption.

Today, we look at the racists’ roots in American policing.

Slave Patrols had three functions: to chase, apprehend, and return the enslaved who had run away to their “owners,” to organize terror to deter slave-revolts and to maintain discipline for slave-workers who were subject to violence if they broke plantation rules. These organizations evolved into southern police departments whose job was to control the freed slaves who were now working as laborers and to enforce the Jim Crow segregation laws that denied freed people certain human rights.

“Early American police departments shared two primary characteristics: they were notoriously corrupt and flagrantly brutal. This should come as no surprise in that police were under the control of local politicians. The local political party ward leader in most cities appointed the police executive in charge of the ward leader’s neighborhood. The ward leader, also, most often was the neighborhood tavern owner, sometimes the neighborhood purveyor of gambling and prostitution, and usually the controlling influence over neighborhood youth gangs who were used to get out the vote and intimidate opposition party voters. In this system of vice, organized violence and political corruption it is inconceivable that the police could be anything but corrupt (Walker 1996).” –  Dr. Gary Potter

Slave Patrollers were white men who rode around on horseback carrying guns, rope, and whips, ready to capture the enslaved. Their job was also to enforce the pass system, a pass, or ticket, signed by the slave master that authorized the enslaved to travel. Without this pass, an enslaved person could be beaten, and beatings sometimes happened even when the person had a pass, eerily similar to black men and women who are beaten, choked, gunned down, and stepped on even when they have done nothing wrong.

In her book, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, Sally Hadden writes, “mounted man presents an awesome figure, and the power and majesty of a group of men on horseback, at night, could terrify slaves into submission.” Many members of the black community still refer to large police vehicles as “patty-wagons,” a play on the former “paddyrollers,” which was also a nickname for Slave Patrols.

Run, nigger, run; the pateroller catch you,
Run, nigger, run, almost dawn.
Run, nigger, run; the pateroller catch you,
Run, nigger, run, almost dawn.

Source: Wolf Folklore Song – RUN NIGGER RUN, THE PATEROLLER CATCH YOU (RUN, NIGGER, RUN)  sung by Joe Pat| Also found in Randolph, Vol. II, #264; Brown, Vol. III, #457| Source: http://web.lyon.edu/wolfcollection/songs/patrun1287.html

As K. B. Turner  David Giacopassi  &  Margaret Vandiver remark in Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts, “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”


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