11 February 2020

SLC's First Black Police Officer: R. Bruce Johnson

R. Bruce Johnson.
From The Salt Lake Herald Apr 3 1904

Salt Lake City’s actual first (as far as all my research can determine) Black police officer was R. Bruce Johnson (1849-1921) rather than Paul C. Howell (see my previous post). 

R. Bruce Johnson (1849-1921) was Salt Lake City’s first Black police officer, although in reality he was of mixed ethnicity with African ancestry making up a minority of his heritage.    

Johnson self-described himself as one-eighth African heritage that he inherited from his maternal line. He was light skinned and could certainly pass for White (and maybe he did when he lived in New Orleans). However, while he lived in SLC, he primarily associated with the African American community and was well known as a member of it. 

In a 1904 newspaper article he stated that his mother was ¼ African heritage and ¾ Choctaw Native American heritage while his father’s line and his maternal grandfather’s line were both White.  He was described in the same newspaper article as “Tall and broad, with straight hair of medium hue, a strong nose and light complexion, he would never be taken as a colored leader by a person who did not know him… [but] the law of radical distinction has thrown him with the men of African extraction ever since he attained manhood.” (SL Herald Republican 1904-04-03 p 1).

Johnson was born in 1849 in Little Rock, Arkansas.  It is unclear if he was born into slavery but his father was a slave dealer in Little Rock while his mother was a person of color, as described above.  

When Johnson was a boy his father died and soon after a law passed in Arkansas mandating all free blacks (were he and his mother slaves who were freed upon the death of his father?) to move out of state, so Johnson’s mother packed up her family and moved to Indiana.

While in his 20s, Johnson moved to New Orleans where he became active in local politics, was appointed to the police force, and was a saloon owner.  He also met and married a White woman, Christine, whose family was from France. 

In 1891, Bruce Johnson arrived in SLC with a letter of recommendation from the recently murdered, and internationally famous, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessey.  Johnson immediately got himself involved with local SLC politics being closely associated with the Black Republicans.  This letter and his political connections got him out of some minor trouble with SLC police for disturbing the peace and got him placed on the Salt Lake City Police Department in the fall of 1891. 

Local newspapers initially praised Bruce Johnson for his qualifications and his work on the police force and often referred to him as a Detective, although I could not find any specific evidence that he was ever formally made that rank. (Hence why it is likely that Paul C. Howell was SLC's first Black Detective). 

By June 1892, the newly elected non-Mormon and liberal Mayor Baskin removed Johnson and others from the police force during a “cleaning house,” likely for his continued associations with saloon keeping and renting rooms to ladies of “questionable morals.”  Johnson’s defense of such associations was that he learned valuable information through his association that lead to several convictions and imprisonments.

Paul C. Howell, another person of color, replaced Johnson on the SLPD in 1892, beginning a tradition, for a time, of having one Black man on the Salt Lake Police Force.  William H. Chambers followed Howell. 

After leaving the Salt Lake police force, Johnson mostly kept to saloon keeping and politics.  More information about Bruce Johnson’s political life and his ability to “deliver the Black vote” for SLC politicians can be found at “The Boss of the White Slaves” by Jeffrey Nichols Utah Historical Quarterly V74 N4 2006 p349-364.

Another scandal in 1904 caused Bruce Johnson to finally leave SLC. Johnson shot at a White man after being called a “nigger” by him while drinking in the Red Onion Saloon on Commercial Street (now Regent St).  

The White man was lightly wounded on the scalp and Johnson offered to pay all of the man’s medical bills. To the dismay of the local conservative newspapers, Johnson got off fairly lightly with no jail time and only needing to pay a hefty fine. 

This latest controversy and the slanderous newspaper articles about him were finally too much for him and he left SLC and settled in Los Angeles, where he lived a quiet life and died in 1921 at the age of 71. 

Bruce Johnson and the Red Onion Saloon on what is now
Regent St. From Salt Lake Herald Jan 2 1904.

Bruce Johnson, officer at the 1895 Constitutional
Convention. Image from UDSH.

Update 8 Feb 2021:
Check out this SLC History Minute video about Bruce Johnson:

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