Sample 2: On Police Violence Against African Americans

November 30, 2018

February 1, Jennie Reed of the Poughkeepsie branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wrote ER to inform her of an incident in their town. Poughkeepsie was, as the letter pointed out, "dear and close" to ER, as it was only a few miles from her home at Val Kill.

They wrote to tell her of the January 22 assault and false arrest of Abraham Johnson by detectives Doerr and Massie of the Poughkeepsie police. The detectives took Johnson to a police station for questioning after seeing him exit a house they had under surveillance as a suspected gambling den. While in custody Johnson sustained injuries, including a concussion that he attributed to his treatment at the hands of Detective Doerr. The detectives together compelled Johnson to help them gain access to the house, where they ultimately made no arrests. Johnson, never officially arrested while in police custody, spent the next five days in the hospital being treated for his injuries.[1] Reed's letter included information about the attack and asked for ER's assistance. "We trust that you will raise your voice in protest against this type of brutality so that all members of our community, regardless of race, color or creed, will feel free to walk in safety and without fear."[2]

ER wrote the following letter to Mayor Robert Stevens of Poughkeepsie. There is no record of the mayor having replied.  

118: Eleanor Roosevelt to Robert Stevens

3 February 1954 [New York City]


Dear Mr. Mayor:

            I have received the most astonishing account of the way in which a Negro, Abraham Johnson, was treated on Friday, January 22nd, by Poughkeepsie detectives. The behaviour of Detective Doerr seems to me appalling and I should think it requires investigation and punishment. Mr. Massie, the other detective, seems to have been better behaved and he regretted the incident.[3]

            My report has come to me from the chairman of the Poughkeepsie branch of NAACP. This is a national organization and I am on the Board of the National.

            It is a shock to me that in Poughkeepsie such treatment should occur to any citizen but particularly to a Negro who the policemen should know will frequently react from fear and be slower to answer and will not be as clear. Knowing this, detectives should realize that greater patience is required on the part of representatives of law and order.

            Before making this public through my column, I wish to give you an opportunity to get the best explanation before me, but I shall certainly say how I feel about this occurrence in the near future.


         Very sincerely yours,



[1] Johnson ultimately won his lawsuit against the city, and the jury awarded him one thousand dollars. (Abraham Johnson, Statement on events of 22 January 1954, 27 January 1954, AERP, FDRL; "$50,000 Suit Filed Against the City," Poughkeepsie Journal (2 March 1954): 18; "Plaintiff Tells of Beating by Two City Detectives But Quinn Calls Case 'Sham'," Poughkeepsie Journal (21 April 1959): 9; untitled, The Poughkeepsie Journal (29 April 1959): 1).

[2] Jennie Reed to ER, 1 February 1954, AERP, FDRL.

[3] Johnson claimed that Doerr beat him, but in his early accounts said that Massie had called their treatment of Johnson "wrong" and had not actively participated in the beating. In later accounts, Johnson claimed that Massie may have hit him. ("'Discrepancy Noted at Trial," Poughkeepsie Journal (21 April 1959): 1; "Plaintiff Tells of Beating by Two City Detectives But Quinn Calls Case 'Sham'," Poughkeepsie Journal (21 April 1959): 9).