James Edward Amos, one of the FBI’s first Black agents, made a tremendous impact on the legacy of the Bureau.
Amos, the Bureau’s second Black agent was hired in 1921. The first was James Wormley Jones, who became an agent in 1919. Amos was able to become an agent thanks in part to Jones’s demonstrated competence. Amos was also the first Black agent to work publicly, as Jones served undercover.
Amos became the longest-serving Black agent in the first decades of the FBI. He worked in Boston, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and New York City on cases that involved organized crime, murder and foreign spies.
James Amos’s Path to the FBI
James Edward Amos was born in 1879. His father had been born into slavery and fought for the Union during the Civil War. When Amos was 22, his father, then a police officer in Washington, D.C., met President Theodore Roosevelt while on duty. This connection led to the president offering Amos a job.
In 1913, Amos, armed with a letter of recommendation from Roosevelt, became an investigator for the William J. Burns International Detective Agency. During this new career, Amos, who’d come to consider Roosevelt a friend, at times returned to work for the Roosevelts. He was the last person to speak to Roosevelt before the former president’s death in 1919. (In 1927, Amos published an autobiography of his memories working for Roosevelt titled, “Hero to His Valet.“)
In 1921, William Burns, who’d operated the detective agency where Amos had worked, became director of the Bureau of Investigation (what would later become the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI). Burns had appreciated Amos’s work at his investigative agency, and Amos soon applied to become a special agent for Burns.
Given Amos’s background, he had better recommendations than most white agents; cabinet secretaries, a general and a senator testified to his abilities.
Amos’s FBI Career
Amos demonstrated a range of skills at the FBI. He was knowledgeable about firearms and an excellent marksman. Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid hunter, once called Amos “the best shot that I have ever seen.”
Amos also understood fingerprint analysis, the art of disguise and surveillance techniques.
One of Amos’s first investigations involved Black nationalist Marcus Garvey and his Black Star Steamship Company. When Garvey went on trial for mail fraud, Amos testified against him in court, receiving death threats as a result. The New York Division Superintendent commended Amos for his work on this case.
In another instance, Amos helped stop the “Tri-State Gang.” The gang, which operated in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia had a lengthy record of robberies and murders when members Walter Legenza and Robert Mais were captured and sent to Richmond Penitentiary. Then an outside ally smuggled guns into the prison—perhaps stashed inside a cooked turkey — and the pair shot their way to freedom.
Amos also participated in an investigation into the contract killers of the organized crime group Murder, Inc. Amos reportedly shadowed mobster Dutch Schultz, who in 1935 was killed by Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, leader of Murder, Inc.
In addition, Amos helped to take down a ring of Nazi spies active in the lead-up to World War II. He followed the spies’ ringleader, Frederick “Fritz” Duquesne and located Duquesne’s home. In addition, when Duquesne stated in court that he’d been an associate of Theodore Roosevelt’s, Amos refuted that claim.
In 1944, a 65-year-old Amos was exempted from retirement by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Amos served as a liaison to the New York City police department and supervised weapons inventory in the FBI’s New York Office before he finally retired in October 1953.
On December 26, 1953, Amos died of a heart attack. He was 74 years old.
The Atmosphere at the FBI
Although Amos was hired by William Burns, the majority of his FBI career was under J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the organization from 1924 until his death in 1972.
Hoover once stated his agents were hired without regard “to race, creed, or color.” Yet no Black men were admitted to the FBI Academy until 1962—and that only happened when Hoover was pressured by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Amos had been hired before the academy existed.
Having Amos as part of his agency was beneficial to Hoover from a public relations standpoint. In October 1947, Amos appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with the caption “Negro FBI Agents in Action.” And Amos’s existence, along with Black office staff and chauffeurs that Hoover had accredited as agents, allowed the director to counter criticism from groups like the NAACP about the lack of Black agents.
Amos’s job as a firearms supervisor may have been more about cleaning weapons than a way for the Bureau to benefit from his in-depth knowledge of firearms. Yet Hoover apparently respected Amos, and it was his request that Amos continue working beyond the age of retirement.
While serving under Hoover, Amos forged a path for other Black men and women to follow.
As Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., a professor and author who was able to review Amos’s FBI personnel files, wrote in his 1998 book “Seeing Red,” “[Amos], more than any of the other early Black agents, ‘proved’ what should never have needed proving: that African Americans could serve the federal government in sensitive positions with objectivity, intelligence, and professionalism.”