'Lady Law' did more than just her duty Officer: 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.

Remember When

February 02, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When Violet Hill Whyte, the first black to be appointed in 1937 to the city's police force, died in 1980, The Sun in an editorial

said, "She worked in an all-white, male-dominated institution and won its respect through hard work and human understanding."

Whyte, who was 82 when she died, explained her success this way: "I'm not afraid of hard work."

During her 30 years on the police force, she proved that time and time again by working 16- to 20-hour days, often starting at 6 a.m. She collected clothing for prison inmates and needy people, made holiday baskets for the needy and counseled delinquent children and their families.

The late Juvenile Court Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. described her as "a one-woman police force and a one-woman social worker combined."

When Police Commissioner William P. Lawson appointed Whyte to the police department, she was assigned to the Northwestern District at Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street, and was given only a police-box key and a badge.

"If she gets into a tough spot she will have no pistol, night stick or handcuffs to help her," said The Evening Sun.

Of her appointment, she told The Evening Sun, "It is a double responsibility. The first responsibility is to the job -- to do it well. The second is the responsibility as the first Negro police officer in Baltimore. People will be watching to see how the Police Commissioner's appointment works, and I want to see that he has no reason to be sorry he gave me the position."

She quickly became known as "Lady Law" by her fellow police officers and the West Baltimore residents who came to her for help.

Whyte's police work included homicide investigations, narcotics cases, assaults, cases of sexual abuse and robberies.

Admired for her bravery, she once played the part of a drunken, cigarette-smoking dope addict in order to capture a narcotics gang.

There's always a first time

Another time she confronted a self-styled religious "prophet" who was suspected of harboring boys and supplying them with liquor.

The 6-foot-4-inch "prophet" hissed, "No woman has ever set foot in the prophet's temple" as Whyte attempted to enter his home, The Sun reported. Pushing by him unarmed, she replied, "Prophet, there always has to be a first time." He was later convicted.

She credited her bravery to a lesson her father taught her: "My father taught me young not to fear death. Nothing has helped me as much in police work," she explained to The Sun.

"In her 30 years as a Baltimore policewoman, Violet Hill Whyte seems never to have fired a shot at anyone and no one to have aimed a gun at her," said an Evening Sun editorial at her death.

"What could have happened, given her status as this city's first black police officer, is that racists outside the department or in could have taken aim at her character, her attitude, her performance. They didn't. Mrs. Whyte was so diligent about her assignments, so fair-minded and affirmative, that the bad words died in any attackers' throats."

Worst cases

She considered child abuse the most shocking of domestic situations. "It's with the children that I find I get emotionally involved," she said.

Because of her involvement with children, she developed a lecture that she presented to neighborhood and church groups throughout the city.

It contained a six-point child's bill of rights: the right of every child to be born healthy and to receive spiritual training, an education, custodial care, protection under child labor laws and narcotics education.

Because she frequently worked undercover in narcotics cases, Whyte was asked to testify before the Kefauver committee, which investigated organized crime in the 1950s. She also appeared once on the network television show "To Tell the Truth," and locally on Channel 11's Brent Gunts show.

Born in Washington, the daughter of a Methodist minister, she moved to Baltimore as a child. She graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and earned her bachelor's degree from Coppin State. She taught grammar school in Frederick County for six years before marrying George Summer Whyte, a city school principal. The couple raised four children, two of whom were adopted.

In 1955, she was promoted to the rank of sergeant of policewomen and transferred to the newly created Western District. She was promoted to lieutenant two months before her retirement in 1967.

After retiring, she worked as a field-work supervisor for Planned Parenthood of Maryland and continued visiting prison inmates and nursing homes carrying along her famous "sunshine" bags of gifts and toiletries.

A modest person, Whyte told The Sun in 1963, "Twenty-five years ago many people told me I wouldn't last as a policewoman. But I kept well and took every job that any man took as a matter of course -- except heavy lifting. I was not inhibited and accepted every case that came my way."

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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