A Lawrenceville woman's father, a Princeton Borough Police Officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty on Feb. 2, 1946, will be officially honored tonight by Princeton officials with a proclamation praising his service to Princeton and declaring Feb. 2 “Officer Walter Harris Day.”
Every year on Feb. 2, Princeton flags will be lowered to half-mast in memory of Walter B. Harris and Princeton Police officers will drape their badges with black tape in his honor.
Harris was the father of Florence Broadway of Lawrenceville and Monetta Harris of New York.
This spring, Princeton Police Department Sgt. Geoff Maurer and Off. Chris King will ride in the Police Unity Tour, honoring both Harris and Billie Ellis, a Princeton Township Police Officer who died in the line of duty in 1955. Longer-term, Maurer and King hope to erect a monument in honor of Harris, similar to the one for Ellis outside of 400 Witherspoon Street.
It was Maurer who did much of the research into Walter Harris, after realizing that now that the police departments are merged, they should honor the only fallen Princeton Borough Police officer as well.
According to newspaper accounts at the time, Harris, 31, lived at 175 John Street. On the evening of Feb. 1, the two-year veteran of the police force had been across the street at the Witherspoon Social Club, known as the “Charcoal Club,” but left shortly after midnight to get ready for his 1 a.m. police shift.
Inside the club three men from Bronx, New York- Earl Patterson, 19 and brothers Norman L. Cross, 19, and Milton Cross, 20. Norman Cross got into an altercation with another male patron after a woman spurred his advances and he pulled out a gun, told the patrons to stand back and then fired a gunshot into the club floor.
It’s believed the sound of that gunshot is what caused Officer Harris to race back to the club.
He ran in as the three men as they were rushing to leave. Harris, who was attempting to stop the men with his service revolver, grappled with the men in the narrow hallway leading to the bar entrance. He was struck over the head with the butt of a gun, then shot in the abdomen. He died 30 minutes later at Princeton Hospital.
Harris, an avid tennis and basketball player, had served on Princeton Auxiliary Police for a year and half before joining the Princeton Borough Police. At the time of his death, he had served just over two years as an officer.
It was later determined that it was Norman Cross’ 9 mm semiautomatic pistol that killed Harris.
Norman Cross was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. Milton Cross was convicted of manslaughter and sentences to 8-10 years. Patterson, who was outside the club when the shooting happened, was acquitted.
The young men were in Princeton visiting their aunt and uncle.
Harris left behind a wife, Florence and daughters Monetta, 6, and Florence, 3.
He was the son of Omega and Belle Harris. He had four sisters: Elizabeth, Bertha, Dorothy and Mildred.
Harris was buried in the black section of Princeton Cemetery.
“I was only three, so I don’t remember him at all,” said Harris’ daughter Florence Broadway, who lives in Lawrenceville. My sister was six, but she doesn’t really remember either. (My mother) never really talked a lot about him.”
But what her mother did leave upon her death in 2001 was a scrapbook she kept after her husband died, including newspaper clippings, letters and other remembrances of Harris’ death and trial.
The police and the Princeton community rallied around the Harris family after the shooting, bringing a turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas, providing free shoes to Monetta and Florence from Hulit's Shoes each year and raising money through a Memorial Fund.
The grandson of slaves, Walter Harris was born in Princeton and grew up on Jackson Street, which later became Paul Robeson Place. The family’s house was moved to Birch Street when Palmer Square was being developed and the trolley used to run in back of the Harris' house.
Lucy Harris is Walter’s niece, daughter of his sister Dorothy. She remembers that she and her mother lived in the house with her grandparents, her aunt Bertha and Bertha’s three sons and one daughter.
“I was 13 when he died,” Lucy Harris said. “Mostly we remember him being kind, but taking on the role of a father to all of his little nieces and nephews.”
Lucy Harris said her cousin Robert remembers 'Uncle Wally' as being a big man whose presence would fill up the hallway when his mother would summon him to straighten out one of his naughty nieces or nephews. Without violence or swearing, Walter would make sure the children behaved.
“(My cousin) Sonny remembers he did something bad and Walter came down in uniform and put the cuffs on him," Lucy Harris said. "But he said ‘I was so little and skinny that he couldn’t get them off. Of course, his two sisters, Bertha and Dorothy, who he was taking care of, just started laughing hysterically.’"
And Lucy Harris remembers one of her own escapades as a child.
“I wasn’t too good either,” she said. “I had run away to the lake. And he came down in the police car (I’d told them where I was going, I wasn’t too smart), and he got out of the car and said ‘What a nuisance. Making your mother cry like this, as good as she is to you. Get in the car. And the next time you decide to go run away, leave all those nice clothes, don’t you take them with you.'
"He was just so annoyed," she said, laughing.
But there were good times too, especially when Walter would load Lucy, Monetta (now a retired registered nurse living in New York) and their cousins into a hand-crank Ford and take them to Asbury Park.
Lucy Harris said that her cousin Robert credits Walter with putting him on the right path in life. "Robert told me, Walter straightened me out. He said without him, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Newspaper articles at the time identified Walter Harris as Princeton's first African American police officer. But Florence Broadway and Lucy Harris distinctly remember at least one other officer who preceded her father.
Some members of the family also have a different recollection of the night Walter Harris was shot. They remember that he was at a meeting at the nearby Masonic Temple when someone alerted him to the ruckus at the club and that's when he ran over to help.