Lt. Violet Hill Whyte was the first African American and first woman to be appointed as a Baltimore City Police Officer. (AFRO Archive)
By Ralph E. Moore
Special to the AFRO
She was a most unusual woman: Violet Hill Whyte that is. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1897, “Miss Whyte” as she was affectionately known in the Baltimore community, grew up to become simultaneously the first African American and first woman to be appointed as a Baltimore City Police Officer. The thunderous sound heard citywide in December of 1937 was that of the double-paned glass ceiling breaking. Whyte served on the force honorably, effectively and kindly until she retired as a lieutenant in 1967 after 30 years.
Much of the time Sergeant Whyte served, she was a policewoman— officially and only technically– a separate category from a policeman. The women wore skirts and jackets, carried their gun in an over the shoulder hanging purse instead of holstered on their hip and even had hats distinctly different from those male officers wore in their regulation uniforms. But Miss Whyte was a full-fledged police officer even though she was issued a badge, but no gun in her early days on the job.
So, in her reportedly 16-20 hour workdays she performed a great deal of social work. Miss Whyte delivered food to hungry persons, secured housing and jobs for folks and counseled individuals willingly or unwillingly, giving a good talking (fussin’ out) to wayward youth. She could be seen all over the city hunting for truant young people. Linda Jackson Ethridge, a longtime Eastsider, recalls seeing Whyte in her Perkins Homes neighborhood. “I once saw her in a parade near Broadway, not far from where I lived. She was being hailed that day as she strutted in uniform throughout the East Baltimore community like a folk hero,” Jackson-Ethridge said. “My mother in frustration would jokingly tell my brothers, if they almost got out of line, ‘They’re gonna take you over to Miss Whyte!”’
That was the magic of Sergeant Whyte’s two personas; she was very kind to some and yet could strike the fear of God in others. The mere mention of her name made people nervous and her “office conversations” were oftentimes life changing for the better.
1952: Lt. Violet Hill Whyte, police woman, won commendation for her efficient work in the dope campaign in Northwest Baltimore. (AFRO Archive)
Miss Whyte was originally assigned to the Northwestern District station at Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street. Eventually the station was split up, according to retired Baltimore City police major, Pete France. Western District was moved to Mount Street. “I saw her in the neighborhood (Sandtown), France reminisced. “I knew people who were mentored by her. She worked out of the Pine Street Station of the Police Department, which was where the Youth Division was headquartered at Pine Street and Saratoga.”
Lieutenant Violet Hill Whyte was a legend throughout the Baltimore community. She was small in stature, but fearless with criminals, fierce with wayward youth and friendly to those in need. She was a policewoman who never wore an official uniform. No female police officer did until the Black police officers’ union, The Vanguard Justice Society, sued in a 1974 class action court case that resulted in the hiring and promotions of African Americans and women. By then Whyte had left the force but it was she who got the ball rolling with her high caliber service.
“Hearing her name would scare any child into doing the right thing,” said a former health department staffer, Vivian Ballard.
The funny thing was that most of the children who feared her never met her; it was her name alone that did the trick.
Dorothy Horton, from a family of eight girls and six boys, filled in for her mother and as their big sister took her brothers to Sgt. Whyte when they hooked school. “She did good with them. As Booker T. Junior High school students, my brothers would occasionally throw rocks at the school building. But she straightened them out. They all finished school,” Horton laughed.
Dan Henson, former city housing commissioner said, “Her name struck fear in the heart of many a young man in Baltimore in the 60s and 70s. ‘Miss Whyte’ is looking for you, they’d say.”
Miss Whyte died at the age of 83 in 1980. She was a highly decorated police official, a respected family woman and a Black folk hero in the community.