John Lillie was the second African-American cop in Lima, OH. Best known as “Popular John,” he lived in the city for many years as a respected barber, but the city’s police department seems to exclude him from their history.
“Throughout the years there have been many African-American officers in the Lima Police Department,” a history of the Lima Police Department notes. “The first documented was William A. Jackson, who served from 1891 to 1895. He was reappointed in 1898. Next came Arthur Harrison from 1902 to 1918 …” Although his photo appears in an 1897 composite photo of the Lima police force — Lillie, appointed to the force on May 11, 1896, the Lima Times Democrat reported — seems to be excluded from the force’s history.
Lillie was assigned to patrol “the west side” of the city, as reported in a Times-Democrate article published on Aug. 3, 1896. In May 1897, Lillie is listed as assisting with the arrests of two men after a night of “considerable” beer drinking at the home of a married man ended in a “b****y fight.” The married man, according to the Times-Democrat article, “did not approve of the conduct of his wife and one of the young men.” The two were fined $10 each in mayor’s court the following morning. In an article published in August 1898, it described Lillie as an “ex-patrolman” as it reported the death of his son, Cloyd. The city directory of 1899-1900 indicates Lillie had returned to barbering. Lillie tragically lost 3 out of 6 of his children to tuberculosis before he died at age 52 in May 1904. The Republican Gazette reported he had “served his city faithfully as a patrolman and left the position voluntarily with a record of which any man could be proud as not a breath of scandal was ever laid at his door.”
With “a last good by on his lips to his family, John H. Lillie gasped and started to fall towards the floor, but was assisted to a bed where he expired from heart failure,” the May 17, 1904, edition of the Allen County Republican Gazette reported. “Probably no man in Lima was better known than Popular John, as he was known to his wide circle of friends, who recognized his sterling worth and his deep sense of honesty.”
Although the force may overlook him, we’d like to remember him and thank him for his profound work.