ITHACA, NY – In the history of the Ithaca Police Department, only two officers have died in the line of duty. One of them was Ithaca’s first Black officer, Levi Spaulding, who served at a time when Ithaca was a very different place — the early 1900s.

In 2014, the city commemorated the service of Investigator Michael Padula, who was killed in 1996, with a sign located on the 500 block of West State Street.

Now, the city will consider a similar commemoration for Spaulding, who died in 1930. Ithaca Police officer Michael Meskill, on behalf of The Badge of Honor charity organization, put forth a request for the commemorative sign to the city’s Board of Public Works, which will be considered during the board’s Aug. 8 meeting.

Spaulding’s story

Charles Githler, who teaches social studies at Newfield High School, wrote an excellent history of Spaulding for the Ithaca Times. The piece is well worth the read, both as a chronicle of Spaulding’s life and the racial climate in Ithaca during the time.

Here’s the short version:

Spaulding, born in 1872 in Georgia, was the son of a freed slave. He came to Ithaca in 1888, the same year that the Ithaca Police Department was founded, though Spaulding did not join the force until much later, in 1919.

Before joining IPD, Spaulding was a homeowner and business owner who ran his own barbershop — which eventually found a home where Viva Taqueria is today. He also managed Arion Orchestra, which provided music for events and dances.

Spaulding and his wife Ora lived in the Southside neighborhood, which to this day remains a hub of Black culture in Ithaca. They lived on what is now Cleveland Street before eventually moving to a home on the corner of South Plain and Green Streets. According to the Times’ story, Spaulding “became an established and respected pillar of the Southside and the larger Ithaca community.”

According to the Times’ piece, Spaulding acted as a “special officer” for IPD from as early as 1911. He was officially instated as a patrolman on Oct. 12, 1919.

Spaulding died in 1930, at age 58. His death came at the end a 36-hour manhunt for George Barnes, a man who had killed his estranged wife with an axe. It was the first murder in Ithaca in 15 years, according to the Times’ article.

Spaulding’s last act was delivering Barnes to the police station, which was then located on North Tioga Street. From the department history on IPD’s website:

“At approximately 7 a.m. Patrolman Spaulding was removing the handcuffs from Barnes, in the police station, when he handed the keys over to Sergeant John McCarthy and said ‘For God’s sake, get me out of here’, Patrolman Spaulding collapsed and was pronounced dead in the police station by the police surgeon. The cause of death was a heart attack brought on by the strain of the all night search. Spaulding was laid to rest on September 14, 1930.”

Spaulding in his time

While Spaulding was by all accounts a good police officer and a pillar of his community, his accomplishment is all the more impressive when you consider it in context.

Githler’s story in the Ithaca Times recalls the many ways in which Ithaca was very much like the rest of the country — that is to say, disturbingly racist.

For example, a 1925 Ku Klux Klan rally and parade in downtown Ithaca, which drew over 500 Klan members who were met with “frequent applause as well as occasional expressions of disapproval.”

And perhaps most poignantly, from the Times’ story: “Immediately next to the Sept. 14, 1930 Ithaca Journal story reporting the details of Patrolman Spaulding’s funeral is an advertisement for ‘Big Boy’, the latest all-talking musical comedy motion picture at the State Theater.  Prominently featured in the advertisement is an image of its star, Al Jolson, in blackface.”

(Featured photo courtesy of Tompkins History Center.)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.