by Len Lear
When I read in Sunday’s Inquirer that Art Matthews had died on Feb. 27 of a heart ailment at the age of 89, I was immediately reminded of my contacts with this African American pioneer and author with the Philadelphia Police Department. If I remember correctly (I could not find anything about it on the internet since it happened so long ago), a West Philadelphia insurance agent whom I had interviewed several times named Warren Scruggs, including when he ran for City Council, did about six to nine months in jail in or around 1975 for a guilty plea in an auto-crash insurance fraud scheme.
Then-District Attorney Arlen Specter had called a press conference to announce the arrest of Scruggs and more than a dozen collaborators, including an insurance claims adjuster, auto body shop owner and chiropractor. After Scruggs served his time, he opened an insurance agency on Chelten Avenue near Pulaski Street in Germantown. I remember visiting him there a couple of times.
Several months later, I was watching Action News at 11 p.m. and again heard Warren’s name mentioned. “An insurance man, Warren Scruggs, was found murdered, gangland-style, in back of the Gypsy Lane Apartments in East Falls when he was putting out the trash this morning,” announced anchorman Larry Kane. He went on to say that Scruggs had been shot in the back of the head by an unknown assailant.
In the days that followed, I wrote about Warren’s murder in the Philadelphia Tribune, where I was a reporter. I kept in touch with Captain Art Matthews, who was a police detective supervisor at the time and who insisted that the murder was being thoroughly investigated. Finally, Matthews said to me, “This is going to be a very hard case to crack because the first thing you look for in a murder investigation is a motive, and in this case we have found so many people with a possible motive to want to kill Warren. That makes it really tough.”
No one was ever arrested in the case, and I know this bothered Matthews because he did not want to let any violent criminals go unpunished. I always had the utmost respect for Matthews because when he was assigned commanding officer of the homicide division in 1969, he became the first African American assigned as commanding officer of a citywide homicide division in any major city in the nation.
After placing number one on the inspectors list in 1974, Captain Matthews was promoted to Inspector and assigned to (another first) detective headquarters as head of all homicide and narcotics divisions. In 1976, Inspector Matthews was further assigned to head all detective headquarters divisions, which included intelligence, major crimes, organized crimes, homicide, narcotics and special investigation squad.
Matthews retired in 1980 as a Chief Inspector after 19 years of service. After that Matthews was employed by the Board of Directors of Harrah’s Casino as co-director of internal controls. I never heard or read anything more about Matthews until early 2017, when I learned he had co-written (with Ben Scott, also a former city police officer) a fascinating book called “Black in Blue.”
Filled with dozens of vintage photos, some more than 125 years old, the book is essentially a history of black police officers in Philadelphia, with particular emphasis on the first four African American patrolmen in the Philadelphia Police Department in 1881 and the first five African American Police Commissioners in the city.
I proceeded to track down and interview Matthews, who called the book, which is also replete with ancient newspaper articles and letters, “more of a scrapbook than a history book.” He told me he hoped to distribute complimentary copies of the book to area schools, civic groups, social clubs and members of the police department.
The book is replete with stories of black police officers dealing not only with crime but also with racism both in the community and in the police department itself. For example, on his very first day on the force, Charles Draper, one of the first four black policemen in the department, was followed by a mob of people yelling racial slurs. (Draper had been a Navy seaman in the Civil War almost two decades earlier and had helped to intercept slave ships coming from West Africa.)
Another one of the first black police officers, Alexander Davis, was a former slave who remarkably overcame his nightmarish past to earn a degree from Howard University Law School. Despite all that, he was not permitted to practice law because of his skin color, so he became a Philadelphia policeman instead.
And even after all of that, according to Matthews’ exhaustive research, many Philadelphia residents would simply not accept the authority of black policemen, and some white cops quit their jobs rather than work alongside the first black officers.
Matthews, a Korean War veteran who had attended Benjamin Franklin High School and Temple University, was working on a second book — about the birth of the civil rights movement in Philadelphia — right up until the time of his death. That book, according to his family, will be published soon. Matthews is survived by Doris, his wife of 59 years, two children and one grandson.
“Historical Commemoration of the Black in Blue” can be obtained from Amazon.