In the Line of Duty: James Corom and the Dawn of Diversity in Urbana Police Force
In the spring of 1886, Mayor Charles H. Ganson made local history. As he was making his appointments for city boards and jobs, he recommended three African men to positions within the Urbana city government. They included Jerry Dempsey (Jeremiah) and Sandford Gatewood as the lamplighters at a salary of $50.00 a month. But it would be Ganson’s third recommendation that resulted in a first in African American history in the community, and that was the appointment of James Corom (Corum) as the city’s first black police officer. Corom, who became a widower three years prior, was nominated along with four white men that included W.V. Colwell, James Mooney, Michael Clarey and W.S. Harding. All were affirmed by the Urbana City Council except for Harding who received a “no” vote from council member Curley who stated, “four policemen were enough” put on his hat and walked out of the meeting. Harding was still installed.
The African American community in Urbana greeted the news of Corom’s new job with pride and joy. In the days following Corom’s assignment to the police force, an article appeared stating, “We have at last succeeded in getting the appointment of a policeman- a project we have been working for some years, and always failed because of the many aspirants for the place, thus putting the Mayor and the Councilmen in a very embarrassing position, knowing whoever was appointed they would receive their share of undue criticism.” Officer Corom’s role had Urbana well ahead of even larger cities in the United States with the installation of black police officers. New York City did not have its first African American law enforcement personnel until 1911. Here in Ohio, Corom was among the earliest and first police officers of color as shown below.
As Corom took his place on the force, he and the other new officers met with Mayor Ganson, for instructions before hitting their beat at 7 o’clock on an evening in May, 1886. Ganson told the men to “be courteous and friendly to one another, and to treat everybody becoming of an officer.” Ganson also instructed the men to never enter one of the saloons while on duty unless called and to shy away from them as much as possible while off duty as well. He also asked them to meet at his office a little bit before 7 P.M. before their shift in the future so the men could socialize as well. With that request, Ganson passed out cigars to his new force and sent them on their way.
Officer Corom made news for the next couple of years doing what was expected of him in his duty. He broke up houses of ill repute, broke up domestic violence situations, retrieved stolen property and ran in citizens for public intoxication, or disorderly conduct. Corom was also injured when he tried to capture a “peeping tom”. The assailant cut Officer Corom’s hand to evade capture and fled into the night. Corom also had his enemies too and it would result in the end of his career in law enforcement. Corom and two other fellow white officers were suspended because they ran in a group of connected men for disorderly conduct and public intoxication. The men claimed they were wrongly accused and fined. The charges were dropped against the accused after a 20-minute deliberation in Mayor’s Court. The trial was standing room only. Officer Corom’s time as an Urbana police officer came to end after a change in political administration, and in the wake of the suspension. By April of 1888 Corom was no longer an Urbana police officer. Another African American officer would not be appointed for several years with David “Bus” Hill.
Although Corom and the two other white officers who suffered suspension were not identified by name, the local newspaper made the following statement when the entire police force changed, “The other officers were studious of their duty, and faithful in performance. The evidence in their case shows that partisan ends demanded their humiliation and despite testimony the mandate was carried out. They did their simple duty and suffered accordingly.” Mayor Ganson secured employment working at the horse barns at the old Champaign County Fairgrounds for Corom for a time following the incident.
James Corom died alone on December 27, 1925, in his rented room at 202 East Market Street in Urbana. The house no longer stands. He was 76 years old. Officer Corom had no children and never remarried following the death of his wife in 1883. His nieces in Columbus took charge of his body and buried him next to his spouse in Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus. He was a member of the Second Baptist Church in Urbana of which he donated a pair of lamps for the building during his brief time as Urbana’s first black police officer.
- John Bry