When the Spokane Chronicle reported the death of 18-year Spokane police veteran Walter Lawson in 1917, newspapers around the country lamented the loss of the Pacific Coast’s only black cop.
And the absence of a black police officer in Spokane apparently persisted for more than half a century.
Local historians and newspaper archives don’t have a record of another African American Spokane police officer until the early 1970s, after the civil rights movement peaked in the late ’60s.
“Walter was a rare fellow,” Spokane Police Chief William Weir told local newspapers in the days after his death. “We admired him not only as a man but as a faithful and brave officer.”
Lawson, who died at 55 from an intestinal disorder within days of patrolling the city, will be honored with the dedication of a graveside memorial at Greenwood Memorial Terrace on May 15. Although he was the third and not the first black Spokane police officer, historians find his story remarkable.
“His timing is unique,” said local historian Logan Camporeale, who uncovered Lawson’s military record as a Buffalo Soldier, a segregated unit named by the Native American tribes they fought against.
Lawson served as a police officer when “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 film credited with reviving the Ku Klux Klan, was showing in Spokane. Lawson died about five years before the KKK had an active chapter in Spokane, Camporeale said. It may have been easier to become a black cop in the early 1900s than later in the century because of this, according to Camporeale.
“It’s easy to picture race relations as continuing upward,” Camporeale said. “But maybe it’s more of an ebb and flow.”
Lawson, who was born in Virginia in 1862, served as a private in the segregated 25th Infantry Regiment in Montana, Minnesota and the Dakotas from 1886 until 1891 during the American-Indian Wars, according to information compiled by Camporeale, as well as Sue Walker, of the Spokane Regional Law Enforcement Museum, and others from the Spokane Historical Monument Committee. That unit did not see much combat but was involved in the Ghost Dance War, an armed conflict that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota.
Walker said Fairmount Memorial Association leadership had been looking to identify and honor a Buffalo Soldier buried in one of the several cemeteries it operates when Camporeale’s article about Lawson was published in one of the last issues of Nostalgia Magazine in fall 2018. Walker knew about Lawson’s police service but not about his military record.
“It’s a neat way to honor somebody that was highly thought of in the department,” said Walker, noting that Lawson will be honored along with other key historical figures who are buried in Fairmount cemeteries and who have had memorials erected at their graves. “It’s fun to bring back the memories of these people who served in the early days.”
Camporeale was flipping through an early 1900s Spokane police catalog in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture when he spotted Lawson’s photo.
“That surprised me,” said Camporeale, who then wanted to know more about Lawson.
Lawson moved to Spokane in 1894 with his wife, Millie, and took a job as a porter at the Wilmot Hotel downtown, according to historians. Eventually, he was hired as a special police officer in 1899, likely working contract security jobs for private businesses throughout the city.
Henry W. Samples was likely the first black Spokane police officer, briefly serving as a special officer in 1892, according to information from the Spokane Regional Law Enforcement Museum. Andrew Green would have been the second black Spokane cop, hired as a stock officer in 1893 to round up stray cattle and horses.
Lawson, who was laid off at least once during budget cuts, eventually became a full-time police officer and a driver for the department – using both horse-drawn wagons and the first automobiles, according to historians and newspaper archives. He also worked as a patrol officer on the outskirts of the city, running hobos out of town.
When Lawson was sick in 1913 with other internal ailments, other police officers pooled their money to send him to a hot springs in Arkansas to recover, Camporeale said. And in 1904 he led a parade of the Spokane black community, including three former slaves.
Lawson was also involved in some high-profile cases, such as in 1905 when he located a domestic violence suspect who shot his wife and left her to die, according to historians. Lawson made an arrest the next morning, and a revolver fell out of the man’s pocket.
But his story wasn’t all rosy, Camporeale said. At the time, Spokane had about 375 black residents, according to 1900 census data he gathered. Camporeale said it doesn’t appear Lawson had the most attractive jobs on the police force.
“He probably still was subject to substantial racism or prejudice for the color of his skin,” Camporeale said.
A white business owner punched Lawson while his back was turned and threw him up against a wall while he was working in plainclothes in 1912, according to The Spokesman-Review archives. By the time Lawson made it to police headquarters, his eye was nearly swollen shut. The man was charged with assault.
Police officials told local newspapers about Lawson’s bravery and self-control despite the challenges he faced as a black officer.
Lawson died after earning badge No. 4, meaning he was the fourth-longest-serving police officer at the time, according to historians.
About a year after Lawson died, local newspapers reported that two black men had taken the physical exam to become a police officer, but it does not appear they passed a mental exam. Another man applied again in 1935, apparently with no success, according to newspaper archives.
At least two black police officers worked for the police department in the early 1970s, but both had left by 1973 amid criticism of the department for racial bias in recruiting and policing.
At least 11 minority police officers were hired by the department in the late 1980s after an “intense recruiting campaign” to hire women and people of color. In 1987, there were no black officers, but five officers belonging to ethnic minorities. The new black officers said they were easily identified as rookie cops and sensed subtle prejudice among community members.
Today, the Spokane Police Department has at least four African American cops among its approximately 340 commissioned police officers, according to Sgt. Terry Preuninger. The department’s ranks also include 30 women, two Native American officers, one Pacific Islander officer and five Hispanic officers.
Preuninger said Spokane police recognized the need for diversity not for the sake of it, but because it brings the best people onto the force. Nowadays, SPD devotes a higher number of resources to recruiting than 20 years ago, when hundreds of people took civil service exams over a weekend.
“Communities want to see their police department match the demographics of the city they live in,” Police Chief Craig Meidl said in a statement. “We have focused our efforts on diversifying our police department by recruiting from nontraditional pools, including various college majors not specifically related to law enforcement, college sports, and out of town career fairs. We still have a ways to go, but we are determined.”
Camporeale said he’s excited to see a diverse figure added to those honored in the Fairmount cemeteries.
Walker said Lawson’s memorial will be an important way of recognizing an early black police officer. She is still working to locate a family member or perhaps a living Buffalo Soldier to attend the dedication of his memorial in May.
“Every (monument) we do takes on a life of their own,” Walker said. “It’s always an honor to get to know these people.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.