African-American police officer
African-American police officer. © michaeljung -

Sergeant Horatio J. Homer broke barriers by becoming the first African-American police officer in Boston’s history in 1878, but over the decades his legacy was largely forgotten. While serving on the force for more than 40 years, Homer made efforts that led to five additional black men becoming officers. He died in 1923 at the age of 75 after living what the Boston Globe has described as a life filled with varied activities including music, politics, and a fondness for poetry.

Yet this pioneering Renaissance man was laid to rest in a grave that remained unmarked until 2010, when a Boston police archivist and current department officer uncovered a record referring to “the first colored officer.” This finding kindled a new interest in Homer’s life.

That year, the Boston police department  and city officials publicly honored Homer’s life and marked his grave at the Evergreen Cemetery in Brighton. Unearthing Homer’s history also reconnected his descendants to his legacy, which had fallen out of the annals of the Homer family lore.

Lillian Homer and her sister Maria are thrilled to have learned of the contributions their grandfather made to making Boston’s police department more diverse at a time when blacks were just enjoying the first tastes of freedom in the region. Their parents’ death when the women were teens was an impediment to learning about their roots. To them, Horatio J. Homer was merely the photo of an ancestor kept in a shoe box.

“All we had was that one picture,” Maria Homer told the Boston Globe. “To learn of all the wonderful things he’s done . . . it’s an honor.”

In addition to having his grave marked in 2010, this past Saturday Horatio J. Homer’s acts were further commemorated. The community room in the Dudley Square station in the Roxbury section of Boston was dedicated to the sergeant with a plaque with a small ceremony attended by Lillian and Maria. Homer’s granddaughters also received a citation from Governor Deval Patrick’s office.

“There’s something about naming a room in the middle of Roxbury, in a very busy department that serves our African-American community [after the city’s first black officer],” Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said about the event. “There are people today in this city, in this very district, that are carrying out the legacy of Horatio Homer.”

Today, Boston’s police department is about 26 percent black, which mirrors the racial make-up of the city. Yet, there are no people of color serving as captains, the highest rank on the force. African-Americans at other high levels are also rare.

“Last summer, the department said it would implement a new promotion test, amid long-running complaints that the current civil service exam admin­istered by the state is discriminatory,” the Globe reported, as a proposed solution to this phenomenon.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.