We rarely pause in our hectic lives to remember the righteous white men and white women of decades past. Whites who, by the standards of their day, stood up or spoke out on behalf of African Americans when there was no “liberal media” to congratulate them for it.
I will rectify that oversight on this blog by acknowledging, with gratitude, some long-dead Caucasians as “friends of the Negro.” Some of them you’ve never heard of. Some you have, but you didn’t know they had a doggone thing to do with black folks and the struggle.
Such is the case with Allan Pinkerton, who founded Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency 150 years ago, and whose name looms large in the history of American policing. (Pinkerton’s, Inc. is still in business.)
Allan Pinkerton’s claims to fame – and to a bit of infamy – had little to do with black people. As bodyguard to President-Elect Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton is reputed to have foiled an assassination plot in 1861. (Pinkerton wasn’t responsible for Lincoln’s personal security when the President finally did get whacked.)
Pinkerton was the Union Army’s spymaster during the Civil War. Later, Pinkerton pursued notorious outlaws such as Jesse James.
Mr. Pinkerton created tools of modern law enforcement such as the mug shot, and originated the techniques of undercover investigation and surveillance.
The infamy came as the Pinkerton Agency evolved into, basically, a secret police force for hire… private muscle for the robber barons of the Industrial Age. The agency provided strikebreaking as a service. And Pinkerton agents infiltrated labor unions in order to subvert them.
What’s not commonly known about Allan Pinkerton is that he had been an abolitionist. In fact, he was friends with the radical abolitionist and insurrectionist John Brown. Supposedly, Pinkerton once told one of his sons, in regard to John Brown: “Look well upon that man, Willy. He is greater than Napoleon and just as great as George Washington.”
A Scottish immigrant, Pinkerton had been active in the U.K.’s working-class “Chartist” reform movement, which might explain his sympathy to the black cause.
Here is what James D. Horan wrote about this aspect of Allan Pinkerton’s life in Chicago in his book “The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History” (1967):
JAMES D. HORAN: During [the] busy, formative years of building his business, Pinkerton was away from home for long periods, chasing bank robbers, tracing missing persons, solving murders, supervising his growing guard and security force, and personally attending to every trivial office detail. It was his wife, Joan, who managed the large family in the clapboard house on Adams Street, between Fifth and Franklin streets. …
Many years later, in a moving letter to his wife, Pinkerton… described her as a woman of great courage and enormous devotion to her family. He might have added that she was also a woman of infinite patience. In addition to the duties and responsibilities of raising her family almost singlehandedly, she continued to hide and feed the many runaway slaves who crowded her attic, cellar, and kitchen.
When prominent abolitionists were in Chicago, the house on Adams Street was one of their first stops. The free Negro leader John Jones, whom Pinkerton always called “my good friend,” was a frequent visitor, as were the emissaries from John Brown and Frederick Douglass, who were assisting slaves to reach Canada.
When Pinkerton wasn’t home, it was Joan who took and passed on the messages of the Underground [Railroad] and who, when her own home was crowded, sought out neighbors, friendly to the abolitionist cause, to feed, hide, or clothe the frightened runaways. …
By 1858, Pinkerton was one of the most rabid abolitionists in Chicago. … As Lloyd Lewis observed: “While Pinkerton’s right hand caught lawbreakers, his left hand broke the law. …”
Pinkerton didn’t leave behind an inspirational tract or philosophical pamphlet detailing his motives…. [But] as he said in Spy of the Rebellion: “I detested slavery…. This institution of human bondage always reclined [sic] my earnest opposition… believing it to be a curse to the American nation….”