Margaret Creswell: New Jersey’s First Policewoman

Sean Murphy

Margaret Creswell, Atlantic City’s first female police officer, undated. (Photo: Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library).

Margaret Briar Creswell Hiawatha, Atlantic City’s first policewoman, made a large impact on the lives of African Americans in Atlantic City. She was born on April 27, 1899 to African American parents John and Willie Briar in Greenville, South Carolina. Her mother worked as a nurse and her father, a contractor.

Raised a Roman Catholic, Maggie Creswell received an education in both Greenville’s Union public schools and St. Francis de Sales School, a private school in Virginia for African-American women. In 1917, Margaret married Berned Creswell, a farmer. They were the first black couple to marry in St. Mary’s white church in Greenville. In 1918, Maggie and Berned Creswell sold their home in South Carolina and they moved to Berned’s old workplace, Atlantic City.

After a year in Atlantic City, Maggie gave birth to their son, Berned Creswell Jr. In 1921, Margaret earned her first position in law enforcement as a clerk assistant in a sheriff’s office in Mays Landing, New Jersey. This job was awarded to her by politician Enoch L. Johnson because of her involvement in local Republican politics.

In 1924, Margaret began working as New Jersey’s first female police officer. After working for three years, she was sworn into the force as a permanent officer. She sported badge No. 1 and the force assigned her to the predominantly Black Northside of Atlantic City. Creswell became widely known as a social worker and civil rights activist. Fighting through all climates and holidays, she had patrolled the streets, disarmed criminals, and spent much of her time dealing with child welfare and women’s equality.

As the only woman on the task force, Maggie introduced a fresh, more understanding perspective to help female victims and criminals. She worked tirelessly with female juveniles and rape victims, since she was the only officer that could handle those cases. Creswell implemented Black feminism to the police force to open the minds of the police force and the Atlantic City community.

After just ten years of work, Creswell noticed a change in her area. In Joan Burstyn’s book “Past and promise: lives of New Jersey Women,” quotes Creswell saying “the Northside is well under control now, and the town’s clean, when I first went on the job children in the colored section were running around like fillies. The street was full of them at all hours of the night” (Burstyn, 260). Her husband passed away due to an auto accident in 1925, resulting in her father and sister moving to Atlantic City. In the mid-1930s, Margaret would marry St. Clair Hiawatha, a detective coworker.

Along with working in the police force, Creswell helped the Atlantic City community often. Maggie ran clothing and food drives, actively participated in the Police Benevolent Association, United Sons and Daughters of the British West Indies, Northside Business and Professional Women’s Club, and the NAACP. Margaret brought attention to many of the community’s needs, including her advocating for the establishment of a home for wayward girls within the city, representation of women in the police force, and the establishment of an African American hospital, which at the time did not exist.

Creswell ended up retiring from the Atlantic City Police Department in 1964, and over 500 people honored her at an event celebrating 40 years of service. On March 14, 1978, Creswell passed away due to a cerebral hemorrhage. She was an influential policewoman in Atlantic City who helped take action on many issues within the Northside, like gender, race, and poverty. Creswell brought a fresh perspective that the city needed to preserve the wellbeing of the Atlantic City community.

 

Burstyn, J. N. (1997). Past and promise: lives of New Jersey women. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.