Oxford AASC: Whyte, Violet Hill

Whyte, Violet Hill

By: Charles Rosenberg
 African American National Biography What is This?

Whyte, Violet Hill

(17 Nov. 1891?–17 Jul. 1980),

the first person of African descent to join the Baltimore police force, often known as “Lady Law,” was born in Washington, DC, the oldest child of Rev. Daniel Grafton Hill, a Methodist minister, and Margaret Mary Phoebe Peck Hill. There is some uncertainty about her precise birthdate, which is sometimes given as 1890 or 1898. Her next youngest sister, Esther, was also born in Washington, and their younger siblings, Daniel, Grace, Joseph, Ida, Henry, Lee, Richard, Hunter, and William, were all born in Baltimore, where their father was transferred to be pastor of the city's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. A maternal grandfather, Rev. Frances Jesse Peck, had earlier been pastor at Bethel, and the Peck family had been “free colored” residents of the state since well before 1820.

In Baltimore Violet Hill graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, then earned a bachelor's degree from the city's Coppin State Teachers College. She taught grammar school in Baltimore public schools and in nearby Frederick County for six years. In 1918 she married a city school principal, George Sumner Whyte; the couple had four sons, George Sumner, Grafton, Eathan, and William, two of whom were adopted, and two daughters, Grace and Esther. During the 1920s and 1930s Rev. Hill; George Whyte's mother, Annie M. Whyte; and various Hill and Whyte siblings and cousins joined the household for periods of time.

In 1922 Whyte was appointed national field worker for “work among colored people” of the Women's Christian Temperance Union—which had created a racially separate department in 1881. This work took her to the states of Georgia, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Kansas, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia, and both Carolinas, doing community health teaching connected to local schools. She did postgraduate study at Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Maryland, and during her travels, completed a certificate in narcotics education at Northwestern University.

Whyte was serving as a member of the Monument City Urban League board of directors when in October 1937 members of the Maryland League of Colored Republican Voters drew attention to the absence of any Americans of African descent on the Baltimore police force. Edward Lewis, secretary of the Urban League, advocated to the county grand jury that to address specific problems of crime in black neighborhoods, officers of African descent were needed. A number of police officers agreed, and began work with members of the Morgan State College faculty to help train people of color to pass the police exam.

Whyte was the first person of African descent appointed to the police force in 1937, by Commissioner William P. Lawson. Four more, all men, joined the force in 1938, from a list of twenty-six trained at Morgan State who had passed the exam. All served in plainclothes until 1943, and Whyte never wore a uniform in her thirty-year career. Initially she was assigned to the old Northwestern District station at Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street. Her first assigned case was a homicide investigation, which she concluded successfully. During her long career, seldom carrying a gun, she worked on narcotics, robbery, homicide, child abuse, and sexual delinquency cases.

Whyte was promoted to sergeant in October 1955, and transferred to Pine Street station in February 1956 in the new Western District. The same month Whyte testified at hearings of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce in favor of a bill that would have restricted advertising of alcoholic beverages on television and radio. She charged “alcoholic and beverage advertising with invading the sanctuary of Christian homes, and after gaining entry, with contributing to the unrest, with false stimulation to little children and to the weakening of certain moral fiber so necessary in the correct rearing of little children and youth” (84th Congress, 2d Session, February 16–17, 1956).

In 1957 Sgt. Whyte participated in a panel on Women in Conflict with the Law at the Middle Atlantic States Conference of Correction annual convention. A recognized public speaker, she advocated for a Child's Bill of Rights setting forth the rights to be well-born (probably a reference to health rather than social status), to spiritual training, an education, proper custodial care and supervision from birth to maturity, protection by child labor laws, civil and social education, and to narcotic and sex education.

In 1959 she was named to head a detail of policewomen at the Western District station. Whyte served on a number of commissions, including the Governor's Commission to Study Problems of Illegitimacy. Two months before retiring in 1967, she was promoted to lieutenant. Around the same time she received a special federal citation for her role in the arrest and conviction of a major narcotics gang in Baltimore. On 11 December her service was honored with a testimonial dinner, with retired Judge Charles E. Moylan Sr. as principal speaker. The Baltimore Afro-American observed, “Although the social scientists steeped in untested theory will deny it, Mrs. Whyte was a realistic social worker par excellence,” who “though a policewoman, throughout her career has performed as one concerned with the social rupture of children and homes.” Police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau said she had done more than most others “to promote the professionalism of the police department” (16 December 1987, p. 3).

For many years afterward she was a field-work supervisor for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, and visited prison inmates and nursing homes. She continued to travel the country, lecturing on police community relations, and representing the WCTU. Whyte died in July 1980 at the Keswick Nursing Home in Baltimore, where she had moved the previous November.

Further Reading

  • Rasmussen, Fred. “Lady Law’ Did More than Just Her Duty: The First African-American on the City's Police Force, Appointed in 1937, Violet Hill Whyte Went Beyond Her Official Role, with Aid to the Needy and Counseling for the Young.” The Baltimore Sun, 2 Feb. 1997.
  • Obituary: “Mrs. Violet Hill Whyte Baltimore ‘First’ Policewoman Dead.” The Afro-American, 2 Aug. 1980, p. 8.
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