Feb. 17, 1952: Arthur “Baby Face” Palmer had a tough gig. In the course of doing his job, he was shot, stabbed, stoned and beaten. Once he was “kicked black and blue up to the hips by three dope addicts.”
Palmer was a Pittsburgh police officer who patrolled a portion of the Hill District described in a 1952 Pittsburgh Press article as “the city’s toughest, bloodiest beat.”
The article focuses on crime and law enforcement — it is very much an outsider’s view of a complex and often misunderstood minority community. And it is accompanied by a collection of extraordinary pictures that, perhaps unintentionally, hint at a strained relationship between some members of the city’s African-American community and those who wielded so much power over them.
We stumbled upon the file of photographs a few weeks ago. It was an accidental discovery, made possible by the fact that our archives are organized alphabetically. While searching for pictures of golfer Arnold Palmer, we saw a folder labeled “Arthur (Baby Face) Palmer,” and it is our rule at the Digs to always examine folders that include the nickname “Baby Face.”
The pictures show Palmer on the job, patrolling a 78-acre portion of the Hill District that centered on the intersection of Fullerton Street and Wylie Avenue.
Palmer’s beat included 30 “murky streets and trash-filled alleys” and approximately 6,500 residents. It was presented to readers of The Pittsburgh Press as a place of drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves who “preyed on the good people of the Hill.”
The pictures reflect the newspaper’s view — Palmer is shown making arrests and questioning people he finds suspicious. In one photograph, he stands over a stabbing victim. In another, he searches a well-dressed young man whose face reflects both resignation and anger.
History and those who lived in his portion of the Hill District before it was demolished to make way for the Civic Arena tell us another, more complex story of the neighborhood. Residents lived in crumbling tenements, but the area pulsed with activity. It was a place of churches, grocery stores, barber shops, bakeries, book stores, restaurants and schools.
Children played ball or tag in the streets and at night watched a parade of well-dressed and sometimes famous people stroll by on their way to nightclubs. Some of the world’s best jazz musicians cut their chops in Hill District spots like the Musician’s Club, The Savoy Ballroom, the Crawford Grill and The Ritz Club.
According to the Press article, though, the neighborhood exhibited a violent streak. Twelve killings were reported on Palmer’s beat in 1951. “The dead he’s discovered would fill a morgue, the shot and stabbed a hospital,” the Press noted. Each year Palmer jailed at least 1,000 men and women.
For his efforts, he was paid $345 each month. And his nickname? It was the result of genetics — “his chubby face with its ruddy cheeks and smiling, gray eyes.”