Breaking barriers: James Gregory, Morristown’s first African American policeman

Studio portrait of James Gregory, July 18, 1920 (Collections of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center)
Studio portrait of James Gregory, July 18, 1920 (Collections of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center)

By Jeffrey V. Moy and Cheryl Turkington, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

James Gregory rose to become Morristown’s first African American police officer and led a career that earned the respect of his colleagues while achieving the admiration of his peers.

Born March 30, 1897, to hard-working parents living on Willow Street, James graduated from high school in 1919 upon completing his service in the Army during World War I, where he had attained the rank of sergeant.

As a young man, Gregory drove a taxi for people arriving at Morristown’s railroad station. His reputation as a diligent and honest citizen led to his 1928 appointment as a “chanceman.”

Police departments approached trusted members of the community to fill in for regular officers if  “by chance” the department required additional assistance. It was during his service as a chanceman that town officials noted Gregory’s exemplary conduct, and in 1934 appointed him a permanent patrolman.

Chancemen Now Patrolmen

James distinguished himself early in his career. Known as a hard worker and approachable officer, he made special efforts at halting juvenile delinquency, volunteered with local baseball and basketball leagues, and helped fund-raise for PBA No. 43.

Lauded by both residents and fellow officers as a good cop and an outstanding citizen, James Gregory helped to protect and serve the community while expanding opportunities for African Americans in Morristown.

Article describing the dinner held in honor of James Gregory from the Morristown Daily Record, February 13, 1936.

During a testimonial dinner sponsored by the Morris Township Citizens Club just eight years after his appointment, Gregory was praised by a group of citizens reflecting all aspects of the town’s citizenry, including Police Chief Fred Roff, former Mayor Clyde Potts, Mayor W. Parsons Todd, Dr. Harold Scott, as well as guest speaker and attorney J. LeRoy Jordan.

In 1952, VFW Post 5461 presented James with the Annual Citizenship Medal Award, amidst a host of friends, relatives and dignitaries; the award was described as one given “to that person who contributes to the welfare and the well-being of the community.”

James Gregory and Family on the wedding day of Gilbert and Louella Watson, 1946. Officer Gregory is in uniform, 2nd row, 2nd from the left (Collections of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center)

The consummate professional, Sgt. Gregory only stepped away from his duties when fighting cancer, from which he succumbed on July 11, 1959, at the age of 61.

Among friends and relatives, Officer Gregory served as a reminder that the struggle for civil rights was often carried upon the shoulders of everyday people who led by example, were humble yet dignified, and worked hard to build strong families within their communities.

James Gregory’s obituary from Feb. 19, 1959.

For a behind the scenes look at our collections and additional information on New Jersey history, follow us on Twitter @NJHistoryCenter and on Tumblr at 


Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2018


  1. Please watch “Chanceman’s Brothers and Sisters” a documentary available now on YouTube. the link is below.
    County College of Morris, Dr. Rita Heller was the Executive Producer of the documentary film, Chanceman’s Brothers and Sisters, The Origins of The Twentieth Century Morris County Black Community, which premiered on New Jersey Network and won a Black Maria Film Festival Award, a Cine Golden Eagle and a Commendation from the American Association of State and Local History. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, The Jockey Hollow Foundation and the CCM Foundation supported the project. The New Jersey Historical Commission honored Dr. Heller with an Award of Recognition