Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Racial Issues: History - Early African-American FBI Agents

Source: FBI

Father and son Agents Jesse and Robert Strider

His commanding officer was “shell shocked” from the intense fighting, his company of soldiers poorly trained and ill-equipped. Yet, as World War I drew to a close in September 1918, an African-American Army captain named James Wormley Jones fearlessly fought on, pushing forward against German forces.

In less than 15 months, this brave officer would find himself serving the nation in another capacity—as a special agent of the Bureau of Investigation, as the FBI was known then. We believe, in fact, that he was one of the first—if not the first—of the early African-American agents who blazed a sometimes tough trail during a difficult era.

James Jones brought plenty of experience to our young organization. He’d served for many years as a D.C. police officer prior to joining the African-American Army regiment known as the Buffalo Soldiers. And while stationed in Europe following the war, he was a senior instructor for his division’s school of specialists, teaching soldiers how to handle high-powered explosives and the mechanics of bombs and grenades.

We quickly put that expertise to work. As an agent, Jones was employed exclusively in an undercover capacity, working directly under the head of the General Intelligence Division (GID), future director J. Edgar Hoover. The GID had been created a few months before in response to recent terrorist bombings, and Jones’ talents and experience fit well with the division’s anti-terrorist mission.

Jones James Wormley_Application.jpg
The special agent application of James Wormley Jones

We are aware of at least four other African-American agents who followed Jones in these early years of the Bureau:

  • James Amos, a former bodyguard of President Theodore Roosevelt, joined the Bureau in August 1921. He was the longest-serving of these early black agents, working some of the Bureau’s biggest cases during his 32-year career.
  • Earl F. Titus, after working as an Indianapolis police officer, joined the Bureau on January 9, 1922. His assignments included undercover work in the investigation of Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist who was convicted of mail fraud in 1923. Titus retired in June 1924 at the age of 56.
  • Arthur Lowell Brent became a special agent on August 1, 1923 after serving two years as a “special employee” (a sort of assistant investigator) in the Department of Justice. Brent was assigned to the Washington Field Office, where he worked on the Garvey case and other investigations. He left the Bureau in June 1924.
  • Thomas Leon Jefferson—an experienced investigator who had worked for a detective agency in Chicago from about 1904 to 1921—entered the Bureau as an agent on September 22, 1922. Jefferson participated in many investigations, working on the Garvey case, car thefts, and prostitution/human trafficking matters. In November 1924, he was commended by Acting Director Hoover for his work on a bankruptcy investigation. Jefferson retired in January 1930.

Over time, other African-American agents would follow these path-breakers. Father and son agents Jesse and Robert Strider served in our L.A. office from the 1940s through the 1970s, tackling difficult fugitive investigations, military deserter matters, and other cases. They were joined in other field offices by Special Agents James Thomas Young, Harold August Carr, and Carl Vernon Mason, among others.

The careers of each of these agents, though exemplary, did reflect the struggles of the day. Unlike most investigators, some of these black agents were asked to handle lesser assignments outside their normal duties. Their struggles, though, paved the way for agents like Aubrey Lewis and James Barrow, who in 1962 became the first African-American agents accepted to the FBI Academy, ushering in a new era for minority agents in the Bureau.