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For Sergeant Horatio J. Homer, Boston’s first black officer, growing tributes

Horatio J. Homer began his 40-year police career in 1878.
Horatio J. Homer began his 40-year police career in 1878.Boston Police Department

To Randall Halstead and other minority officers in the Boston Police Department, the story of Sergeant Horatio J. Homer serves as a beacon of hope and of the power of perseverance.

Homer, who in 1878 became the department’s first African-American officer, ushered in a new era in the city over a 40-year career. In the decade after his appointment, the force hired as many as a half-dozen additional black officers, in large part on his recommendation.

On Saturday, the department will unveil a plaque honoring Homer at the Area B-2 police precinct in Roxbury, a neighborhood where he once resided. Halstead, a deputy superintendent, will preside over the ceremony, which some of Homer’s descendants plan to attend.

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“This man set a precedent,” said Halstead. “To move forward, you have to know where you come from.”

The tribute is the latest honor bestowed upon Homer by the Police Department.

His historic role was discovered in 2010 by Margaret Sullivan, a Boston police archivist, and Bob Anthony, an officer in East Boston.

That year, officers and city officials memorialized Homer’s life and finally marked his grave, which had lain overlooked in Evergreen Cemetery in Brighton for decades since his death in 1923 at age 75.

For Homer’s granddaughters, Lillian Homer and her sister Maria, the growing interest in his life and career reflects an affirmation of his service and a chance to fill in gaps about his background.

“Our parents died when we were young, so we didn’t know much about his story; we just had the one picture of him in a shoebox,” said Lillian Homer, 56, who lives in Somerville. “She [Margaret Sullivan] really introduced us to our grandfather.”

Horatio Homer was born in Farmington, Conn., in 1848, the year that state abolished slavery. He moved to Massachusetts in 1873, eventually living in Brighton and the South End, as well as Roxbury.

Records show he was a man of varied interests. He was said to play several musical instruments and to have a knack for memorizing poems. A Republican, he belonged to a black man’s political club. He was said to have known Frederick Douglass.

“He was a pioneer in his day and age,” Lillian Homer said. “He was a father and a husband who did his duty.”

Homer’s legacy lives on in the department as it works to integrate more minorities and women into its ranks.

“It all falls back on the officers of color talking to the younger officers,” Halstead said. “He saw that the need for change is constant, and to see that change you have to be that change.”

Currently, about 27 percent of the 1,453 patrol officers are black, according to department figures.

The Police Department has faced criticism, however, for a lack of minority officers in leadership positions. There is not a single person of color with the rank of captain, for example.

Last summer, the department said it would implement a new promotion test, amid long-running complaints that the current civil service exam administered by the state is discriminatory.

As the department works to bolster its ranks to better reflect the city’s population, Homer’s legacy is not lost on those who now serve.

“It shows you that if you apply yourself and believe in what you do you can achieve anything,” Halstead said. “You have to keep moving forward, and that’s what we have to instill in these kids.”

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