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THE HERITAGE OF THE PAST IS THE SEED THAT BRINGS
Inscribed on the National Archives building, Washington, D.C.
Unknown Black Firefighter 1855-1856, Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA
2116 Courtside Lane Apt.206
Charlotte NC 28270
|and||Rev. Ron Ballew
4225 N. 92nd St.
Milwaukee WS 53222
This is an effort to pay tribute to the many volunteer and paid firefighters of color. Not in recent years but in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This time period is chosen because there is little written about these men and in most instances they are forgotten. You are free to use this material in any constructive way. There should be no charge for the use of this material or any profit made from the use of it. For the most part it was freely given and should be passed along the same way. If you have material to add, or changes that should be made, please contact me at email@example.com .
See Early Black Firefighters of North Carolina .
A portion of this page is included in the book "Firefighters".
|Black Women||New Bedford|
|Denver, St Paul,Indianapolis, Hartford, Chicago||Smokestack Hardy|
|Los Angeles||Wichita & Hutchinson|
In history there is no clear beginning or end. The earliest evidence available puts us in New Orleans, Louisiana in the year 1817 in the month of July. New Orleans had just experienced a devastating fire, fingers were being pointed as to why there had been such a great loss. Action was taken by the governing body to officially organize its people to avoid another conflagration. Fire Commissioners were appointed to take charge at any fire and to conscript any and all bystanders and assign them to service. This included draymen and their equipment as well as individuals both free and slave.
If this did take place consider these as the first black firefighters. This is not to imply that this is the first time a black person ever engaged in firefighting. This is the first discovered document that indicates government sanctioned black firefighters.
In about 1821 volunteer firefighters were being solicited including permission for free men of color to organize fire companies. All of this is very disconnected and vague and does not show these companies being organized.
In 1833 four companies are mentioned, Volunteer No.1, Mississippi No.2, Lafayette No.3 and Washington No.4. This time new equipment had been purchased and placed in use by the Lafayette and Washington companies. The problem was Lafayette and Washington was made up of "two squads of negroes, with a colored man named Johnson at their head." It appears that the other two companies felt they should have received the new equipment and were jealous of the black companies. The white firefighters put on a demonstration in opposition to this action and prevailed. Washington No 4 was reorganized and named Neptune.
There are conflicting opinions as to how long the black firefighters were active. Some feel they were not in existence long enough to ever answer an alarm, however the book this information is based on states that , Washington No.4, "have been in existence prior to July 1834. In that month it participated in the Lafayette obsequies, (Lafayette fire company) and it was also one of the two companies (No. 3 being the other) that were put by the City authorities into the hands of negro's, thus bringing about the remonstrances and successful opposition on the part of the older companies, which finally brought the companies together under one general association for mutual purposes, out of which grew the Firemen's Charitable Association. "Reference to "Lafayette obsequies" gives even more credence to the fact that these two companies were a viable part of the fire department. The definition for obsequy is: a funeral or burial rite. This would lead you to believe that they had buried one of their own.
Source: History of the Fire Department of New Orleans edited by Thomas O'Connor, Chief Engineer, 1895
Restored Hose Reel displayed in Oklahoma City Fire Museum
In 1818 a group calling themselves the African Fire Association met to complete plans for forming a fire and hose company. A meeting was held and officers of the organization elected one of them being Derrick Johnson president and the other Joseph Allen secretary. A committee for soliciting subscriptions was appointed. Some of the circulars that they were using to promote their organization fell into the hands of white firemen.
This brought about a conference of the white fire companies the meeting held at a place called Stells Tavern. About twenty-five companies were represented. A resolution was passed reading: "The formation of fire-engine and hose companies by persons of color will be productive of serious injury to the peace and safety of citizens in time of fire, and it is earnestly recommended to the citizens of Philadelphia to give them no support, aid, or encouragement in the formation of their companies, as there are as many, if not more, companies already existing than are necessary at fires or are properly supported" The committee was appointed at this meeting to see to it that authorities did not allow them to open fire plugs. Another meeting was held on the 13th of July, with even more companies attending. Here the committee reported that they had contacted the watering committee on Councils and that they said they were required to grant a license to any fire association applying for the use of the plugs to fight fire.
Before things could get out of hand some of the "persons of color" had a meeting at the home of George Jones. James Forten chaired the meeting and Russell Parrott was secretary. They had heard how upset the white firemen were and wanting to avert trouble passed the following resolution.
"A few young men of color had contemplated the establishment of a fire or hose association, and, although the same may have emanated from a pure and laudable desire to be of effective service in assisting to arrest the progress of the destructive element, we cannot but thus publicly enter our protest against the proposed measure, which we conceive would be hostile to the happiness of people of color, and which as soon as known to us, we made every effort to repress. Should it be carried what effect we cannot but consider that it will be accompanied with unhappy consequences to us. Therefore we sincerely hope that supporters of the contemplated institution, and such as might wish to be concerned, will relinquish all ideas of the same" The African Fire Association met again on July ,19th and decided the whole idea should be abandoned. A resolution was passed that amounted to an apology to the whole community for having upset anyone as that was not their intention.
There are a number of race riots recorded in Philadelphia in the first half of the nineteenth century and this may have been the reason for the quick change of mind. On May 18, 1838 an orphanage for colored children was burned. It should be noted however that not all of the white fire companies were in open opposition.
Joseph A. Marshall, a retired lieutenant of Engine 11 documented some of the history of the early black firefighters of Philadelphia. The book is tilted Leather Lungs" and is written in 1974. The book focuses on black fire fighters but also highlights one individual who was nicknamed Leather Lungs. This term has been used in the old days to describe men who seemed to be able to breath the smoke with out having to come out for air. These men had their own secret for being able to withstand the punishment of heat and smoke. One trick was to place your nose as close to the hose stream as possible there was a small quantity of fresh air around the stream.
In his book Marshall tells of the first paid black firefighters. The department went to full paid December 29, 1870. He does not say if there were black volunteers prior to that. On April 13, 1886, Isaac Jacobs was appointed and assigned to engine 11. He stayed just over four years. Less than a year later Stephen Presco was appointed and was killed while on duty on March 7, 1907. Others followed and left their own mark on the history of the department.
It may be well to note at this time that the Marquise de LaFayette at the young age of 19 he had come from France to the Colonies, in 1777 to assist in the efforts to free them from the British. LaFayette became a dear friend of George Washington during the following years of combat. He had given a plan to Washington for freeing the slaves and on returning to France formed the Society of The Friends of the Blacks. His goal was equal rights for all people. He returned to American in 1825 and drew large crowds as he toured the new United States of America. One person that greeted him on his return was James LaFayette.
James LaFayette had been born in slavery in 1748 in Kent County, Virginia. When LaFayette came to America to help in the war effort James ask his master for permission to join with the Marquis. They became fast friends as James infiltrated the enemy camp acting as a servant in the headquarters of both Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis was so impressed with James that he sent him to spy on LaFayette. At the surrender of Cornwallis he discovered James in the headquarters of LaFayette in the uniform of an American. The information he was able to gather as a spy was invaluable to LaFayette. At the close of the war the General wrote a certificate praising his work in the war effort. James forwarded his certificate to the Virginia Legislature asking for his freedom. His freedom was granted and he took the name of LaFayette as his last name.
The French General had endeared himself to all who heard about his exploits during the Revolutionary War. His efforts to claim freedom for blacks no doubt was the talk of the black community.
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The photo at left is from Charleston, West Virginia meeting of fire fighters about 1880-1900.
The center photo is a young firefighter from a collection of Hank Bergson while the one on the right is from a collection of Mike Novak.
By Stanley Levine
In 1824 the first real improvement in the fire service took place. An act was passed by the General Assembly by which the City of Savannah was invested with the power to appoint twenty-one firemen. This was the first regularly organized fire department in the city. All of the engine houses, engines, ladders, buckets, hose and other implements were turned over to the Savannah Fire Company. This body elected their own chief fireman, first fireman and second fireman, subject to the approval of Council. No salaries were paid, and all vacancies by death, resignation or otherwise were filled by Council upon recommendation of the fire company. The Savannah Fire Company made their own by-laws and rules, and had the right to expel any of its members for violation of company rules, or city ordinances. They were authorize to employ a clerk at a salary of $8.00 per month. The work at fires was performed by "free men of color, free negroes and hired slaves." The City Scavenger "on the breaking out of fire", was required to "order his carts at different places where the public buckets, fire hooks, ladders and other implements for the extinguishment of fires are kept, and to assist in carrying the same to the fire or to such place or places as may be directed by the firemen."
Robert Campbell was chosen the first fire chief, and four new hand engines. reels and the necessary quantity of hose was purchased.
The ordinance of March 11th, 1825, provided that the City Marshal "immediately take an account of the colored and negro firemen between the ages of sixteen and sixty and make a return of the same to the Chief Fireman." Each enrolled free man of color was required to furnish himself with a cap or hat" on which shall be put the initials F.C., to be worn when ever he is on duty. " If any enrolled free man of color or free negro failed to answer an alarm they were subject to a fine in a sum not exceeding ten dollars, or be imprisoned in the common jail for a period not less than five nor more than fifteen days. Free men of color and free negroes enrolled as firemen were exempt from poll tax. Once a month the free men and slaves were ordered out "for the purpose of playing off the engines and drilling in the use of them, cleaning and keeping in good condition the ropes, buckets, hose, ladders engines;" and any failure to attend these drills subjected the offending party to a fine not exceeding ten dollars or imprisonment not exceeding fifteen days. Any member of Savannah Fire Company was authorized to order any citizen to "assist in the filling of the engine with water during a fire and otherwise render assistance;" and should any citizen refuse to obey such orders any member of the fire company was authorized to arrest him, bring him before the Mayor or any Aldermen present, who was authorized to send him to the guard house until the next day, and on conviction he would be liable to a fine not exceeding thirty dollars; and the Clerk of Council " Shall, when directed by Council., publish his name in the public gazette of the city at least once."
The City Marshal and the constables were required to assemble at all fires with their staves of office and report to the Mayor, Chairman or any Alderman present.
The ordinance required the Mayor and Alderman to assemble at each fire to enforce the ordinances. It was a violation of the law for any one to ride in or through any street, lane or square in which the inhabitants were assembled for the purpose of extinguishing fire, except the commandant of the militia and his staff, and then only when it became necessary for him to communicate with the Chief Fireman.
"To prevent, as much as may be, the great confusion which may arise from too many men armed at the time of the fire, the Mayor was directed to request the commandant of the militia to fix the number of men necessary to be under arms by a routine, once in every three months."
In March, 1825, an ordinance was enacted requiring any fireman of the fire company who shall contemplate an absence from the city for a period longer that one month to furnish a substitute satisfactory to the Chief Fireman.
During the same year a special tax was levied by ordinance, requiring the payment of ten cents on every hundred dollars on the value of improved real estate for the purchase of engines, hose, ladders, etc.
In August a wooden engine house was built in Liberty Square.
In 1825-27 the fire department had regular parades and inspections on the last Saturday in each month. Twenty slaves were allowed to each company, and each slave was paid fifty cents for every parade.
At this period any person sounding a fire alarm "by ringing of bells or the beating of drums" received a reward of such an amount as was agreed upon from time to time by the fire company. This was abolished in March of 1836. The Savannah Fire Company was divided up, and one or more of its members were assigned to the management of the negro firemen of the different engines; these members were known as "Masters of Engines," and were authorize to have administered "prompt and immediate correction" whenever a slave "disobeyed or otherwise offended." Each slave fireman was provided with a badge, which entitled him to the "immunities and privileges of a fireman."
In 1826 an engine house was built in Franklin Square. On May 25th, 1826 "it appearing to Council that the number of free persons of color returned to the fire company by the City Marshal are not sufficient towards a complete reorganization of the fire department of the city," an ordinance was enacted providing for the enrollment of a greater number of negro slaves and the payment of twelve and one-half cents per hour while engaged in drills or at fires. The first slave firemen who arrived at the engine house on an alarm of fire received one dollar and the second and third received the sum of fifty cents each, and upon the failure of such slave to answer an alarm he forfeited one hours pay for every fifteen minutes he was late, and when such fines exceeded the value of his badge he was deprived of the same and lost the privileges enjoyed by its possession. In July. 1826, Council enacted an ordinance providing for the distribution of rewards, amounting to thirty dollars for each fire, to be distributed by the Chief Fireman, or in his absence the Directing Fireman, "for the encouragement of free persons of color, free negroes and hired slaves, who may be active in carrying engines, etc. to extinguish fires." So far as can be ascertained, the department at this time consisted of seven hand engines, with the necessary hose and other implements. The department was operated in what might be called a successful manner, and the fire loss was held down to a degree reasonable with the facilities at the command of the Savannah Fire Company.
The report of Chief Fireman Parker on January 11th, 1827 showed the city then had "two suction engines, one suction and discharging engine, 1,200 feet of ladders, one Philadelphia built engine, one Boston built engine and one hose cart, all in superior order and efficiently officered and manned." There was also a Boston built engine in good order and a quantity of useless machinery. The effective labor required, he stated, was about 300 men. The current expenses were placed at $1,200. Every alarm for fire cost $25.00. Six useless engines were sold for $570.00.
In 1828 the department consisted of four New York built suction and discharging engines; two London built suction and discharging engines; two Boston built engines, one hose cart, 1,740 feet new hose, 700 feet of old hose, 178 slaves, 96, free negroes, 274 buckets, 15 fire hooks, 44 ladders, 22 axes and a white company of seventeen men.
Early in the "30s" the frame engine houses began to disappear and substantial brick buildings took their place. Some of the new houses wee two stories high, the upper floor being used for meetings and gatherings of the members of the company. In 1834 an engine was bought at a cost of $700.00 and a brick house was erected in the northern part of Oglethorpe Ward for the same.
In 1845 the young men of the city began to take an interest in the fire department and on February 19th, 1846, Council approved an application from a number of young men for a charter as the Oglethorpe Fire Company of Savannah. The number of members was limited to fifty. They were to supply their own apparatus within a year, were to work in themselves, were to enjoy the same privileges as the Savannah Fire Company and be under the Chief Fireman.
In 1847 the Washington Fire Company was organized and in the latter part of the following year the Young America Fire Company sprung into existence. This latter company was made up of the rough element of the community and gave the officers and members of the Savannah Fire Company great trouble and annoyance. At almost every fire the Young Americas engaged in a fight with someone and on a number of occasions they drove the faithful slaves away from their posts of duty.
In May of 1850 the Savannah Fire Company adopted resolutions to allow colored firemen to wear uniforms. The Oglethorpes and Washington's protested against this resolution as degrading to the white firemen and the Council directed the Mayor not to permit it, later, however, Council reconsidered this action and left it to the Savannah Fire Company to do as it wished.
The Savannah Newspaper had this to say in its May 28th ,1853 issue:
"Yesterday the Savannah Fire Company paraded. It was reviewed by His Honor the Mayor and the Chairman of the Fire and Water Committee of Council.
It is a subject for extreme gratification to our citizens, to witness so imposing a display of real stamina and solid worth, as this parade afforded. Some four hundred stout fellows, the pick of the colored population, devoted to the protection of the city from the ravages of the devouring element.
Their engines, lanterns, torches, etc., were gaily and most tastefully arrayed in fresh flowers and ribbons, and the men themselves, all uniformed according to the dress adopted by their respective companies.
The line consisted of seven engines, two suctions, one general hose-cart, one bucket company, and one hook and ladder and axe company.
After being reviewed by the Mayor, they were dismissed and returned to their respective quarters."
June, 1853, more trouble between the Savannah Fire Company and the Oglethorpe Fire Company over the latter's mistreatment of negro firemen at fires. The Councils Committee on Fire reported at the close of the year there was utter disorganization of the department. Early in 1854 more trouble occurred. The Council had given Oglethorpe Fire Company control of its engine and authorized it to appoint its firemen subject to the approval of the Mayor and Aldermen, instead of the Savannah Fire Company. The Savannah Fire Company claimed that the Oglethorpe Fire Company was beyond control of the Chief Fireman and proper service could not be secured from them. After much discussion the Savannah Fire company resigned in a body, publishing their resignation in the local paper before sending it to Council. The resignations were accepted November 9th and a new company was promptly appointed.
The dispute between Savannah Fire Company and Young America Company finally came to an end and the latter was disband.
These two men are Savannah Firefighters of this period. Courtesy: Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library Emory University.
1856 found Savannah protected by, Oglethorpe No 1, 35 members (white) Washington No 9, 52 members (white), Germania No. 10, 48 members (white), Axe, Hook and Ladder, 2 white officers and 50 free men of color, Engine One, two white managers and 80 slaves, Engine Two, 2 white officers and 79 slaves, Hose One, one white manager and 21 slaves, Hose Two, one white manager and 25 free men of color. Engine Three, two white officers and 60 slaves, Engine Four, two white officers and 65 free men of color, Engine Eight , two white officers and 78 slaves, Engine Eleven, two white officers and 78 slaves.
1860 White companies were Oglethorpe, Washington, Geranium and Mechanic Hook and Ladder. Colored Companies. Warren Hand engine, Pulaski Hand engine, Franklin Hand engine, Neptune Hand engine, Tomo-Chi-Chi Hand engine, Niagara Hand engine, Wild Car Hand engine, Columbia hose, Hose #2 and Axe Co #1.
Note: A large number of people was required for each "engine" and Hook and Ladder, as these were all hand drawn wagons and upon reaching the fire the pumps were manned by manual labor. One advantage the black man had over the white was that they had learned from years of heavy labor to combine their energy with rhythmic chants or songs and no doubt the firemen sang or chanted as they manned the hand pumps much as the stevedores when loading ships and the gandy dancers while driving rail spikes.
In a book titled The Fireman: David D. Dana gives information about a number of fire departments in 1858. On page 229 he had this to say about Charleston:
"There are in the department ten engines manned by whites, and ten manned by negroes, who have white presidents, who are responsible for the apparatus under their charge. The individual members receive no pay, but the engine which puts the first stream upon the fire receives a premium of twenty-five dollars; and all of the white companies receive sixteen dollars per hour while working at fires.---------The companies are not limited in regard to the number of men for each company."
This information as well as other information on this site was kindly furnished by Tom Scott.
Dana does not say that Mobile had black firefighters however the Ordinance establishing the fire department in Section 8 describes the manor of electing officers states that "the qualified voters and white firemen of the several companies" elect the officers. Had there been no black firefighters it is not likely this wording would have been needed.
THE FIRST BLACK FIRE CHIEF IN THE UNITED STATES
Patrick H. Raymond was born in 1831 and was appointed to the fire department in the early 1850's, assigned to "Hydrant Engine Co. No. 4." He was appointed Chief Engineer (Chief of Department) of the Cambridge Fire Department on 5 Jan 1871. He was pensioned on 17 April 1879 and died on 28 July 1894.
Chief Raymond is believed to be the first Black Fire Chief in the United States. Chief Raymond was also a member of the National Association of Fire Engineers (predecessor to the International Association of Fire Engineers and the International Association of Fire Chiefs) and held the office of Recording Secretary in that organization from 1873 to 1877. Engine Company #5 in Inman Square (1384 Cambridge St.) was organized on 30 Nov 1874 and was named "Patrick H. Raymond Steam Engine Company #5." in honor of Chief Raymond. The company is still in service today in a newer (1914) firehouse at the same location.
The photo was scanned from the Centennial History Book of the International Association of Fire Engineers, published in 1973. The historical information was written by retired Cambridge Chief of Department William J. Cremins and comes from the same book and also the records of Capt. Steve Persson of the Cambridge Fire Department.
This information comes from John Gelinas, Deputy Fire Chief, Cambridge Fire Department, 12-22-99
AND THEN THE WAR
1858 was the beginning of a paid department in Richmond. After a long discussion, the City Council, in the fall of that year permitted the hiring of 10 slaves for each company. The requirements were that they be of good character. These men were to man the hand pumps then in use. The beginning of the end of hand drawn equipment meant that it would take less manpower to get the equipment to the fire and now the horses began to appear on the scene. Even as the Confederate Capital could almost smell the smoke of Yankee guns it had to protect its self from fire. A new steam engine in late 1863 required a skilled hand on the reins of the horses. Most southern young men had gone to war and someone was needed now. The City Council Fire Committee on January 5, 1864 authorized the hiring of two black firefighters. One was hired as a hostler while the other was to tend the stream engine and stoke the fire.
History of Blacks in Richmond Fire and Emergency Services
In 1858, a paid fire department was organized in Richmond, Virginia. It consisted of six commanders, six foreman and 90 firefighters. This Fire Brigade was placed under the supervision of a City Council Committee. On October 25, 1858 City Council authorized each company to use 10 slaves "of good character" to man the pumps. During this time a movement to replace hand-pumped engines with steamers gathered force. On January 5, 1864, the Council Fire Committee authorized the Fire Brigade to select one Negro man to act as hostler (a person who takes care of horses) and one Negro man to serve as a fireman (a person who fires and lubricates steam locomotives) for a steamer fire engine. It was May 5, 1950, when a local paper announced that the city personnel department would soon set in motion operations for the recruitment of Richmond's and the State of Virginia "first ten Negro firefighters." On July 1, 1950, the department hired its first "Negro" firefighters to form the first black unit in the city. The plan called for the men to work under white officers until they could qualify for promotion. Ten men were selected from 500 applicants. They were as follows: Charles L. Belle, William E. Brown, Douglas P. Evans, Harvey S. Hicks II, Warren W. Kersey, Bernard C. Lewis, Farrar Lucas, Arthur L. Page, Arthur St. C. John, and Linwood M. Wooldridge. Arthur C. St. John was called to return to the military in 1950 and Frederick J. Robinson was hired. When Farrar Lucas resigned in 1951 Oscar L. Blake was hired. The black firefighters would man Engine Company 9 at Fifth and Duval streets "in the heart of a Negro residential and business district."
The qualifications for Negro firefighters were the same as for the white firefighters. However, white recruits would go immediately to the fire stations for company assignments and into regularly scheduled training classes, whereas a special training program was required for the Negro firefighters. The black firefighters were going into a single company house as a unit and under the leadership the "Drill Master" had to be completely trained in every detail before they could function as such. The black firefighters were trained for two months, twice the required time for white firefighters. Part of the reason the training was so long was the department erected separate sleeping quarters and bathrooms to house the four white officers and two white engineers. Black firefighters got most of the assignments to fight the constant dump fires and had to wash and clean the hoses for their own companies after a fire and sometimes for some of the white units at the scene. They were required to wash all the equipment after every run (while white companies washed equipment near the end of the shift). This meant that if they had six calls during a shift, they washed all the equipment six times. They were also required weekly to wash down the walls of the fire station from top to bottom, a task that white companies were not required to do. Black firefighters had to wear full dress uniforms (hat, coat, tie, dress shirt and pants) if they wanted to sit outside of the fire station. Therefore, if a fire call came and they were outside, they had to answer the call in dress uniforms. Other companies were not required to do this.
The men of Engine Co. 9 were often given the chores nobody else wanted. Members were called to City property when grass needed to be cut, buildings needed to be painted, or hornets' nests needed to be removed. They also drove the service truck from station to station collecting damaged equipment and delivering laundry and supplies. They could not go into three of the city's fire stations, (6, 13, & 19). Instead they would go around to the back of the stations and knock on the window and white firemen would bring their laundry to the driver. One of the white captains said "They are good firefighters under proper leadership and they are doing well learning to drive the equipment". "On one or two occasions, he said that nervousness and over-eagerness hindered them". Despite feeling as though they were being treated like second-class citizens, they made up their minds that they would be the best firefighters the City had. They were the first group to be trained as a company; they could go into a fire and put it out scientifically. Although being college graduates or having some college, the black firefighters of Engine Co. 9 were better educated and better trained than most of the City firefighters. But they were not afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
Normally, it took three years to qualify for an engineering position (driver/pump). However, when some of the members of Engine Co. 9 became qualified for the job, the position was mysteriously eliminated. Firefighters at Engine Co. 9 always scored in the top 10 in examination scores, however, because of segregation they were not allowed to supervise white firefighters. Therefore, unless there was a vacancy in Engine Co. 9 there were no promotion opportunities for black firefighters. Black firefighters were placed on promotion lists until the lists expired. Harvey S. Hicks was promoted to Lieutenant in 1955 and was assigned to E-9 and promoted to Captain in 1961 and assigned to E-9. Linwood M. Wooldridge was promoted to Lieutenant in 1956 and assigned to E-9. Oscar L. Blake was promoted to Lieutenant in 1959 and also assigned to E-9. Arthur L. Page was promoted to Lieutenant in 1961 to replace Lt. Harvey S. Hicks and was also assigned to E-9. Charles L. Belle was promoted to Lieutenant in 1967 and was assigned to E-9. Charles L. Belle passed the Lieutenant's examination in 1956 but had to take the test 10 more times before he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in December, 1967.
The black firefighters remained segregated at Engine Company 9 until 1963. A tragedy struck in 1963 that caused the department to take another look at segregation. On June 14, 1963 Captain Harvey S. Hicks, Douglas P. Evans and Calvin Wade attempted to rescue a self-employed contractor from a 23-feet deep pit. When the three failed to return, Herman Brown went down to see what had happened and saw that all four men had passed out. Feeling weak himself, Brown climbed back up the ladder. Lt. Oscar Blake went down next. Having just enough strength to pull off his mask, Lt. Blake climbed back up the ladder. By that time other firefighters had arrived. Using air packs they brought Wade up, administered oxygen and he regained consciousness. All Wade could remember was Captain Hicks was giving artificial respiration to the contractor. Captain Harvey S. Hicks, Firefighter Douglas P. Evans and the contractor were pronounced deceased on arrival at St. Phillip's Hospital. Captain Harvey S. Hicks, the department's highest-ranking black officer and firefighter Douglas P. Evans suffocated in this rescue attempt of a contractor who was also a good friend of the firefighters. Since all the black firefighters were stationed together it was possible that a major catastrophe could possibly wipe out the company.
After 13 years some type of action was taken to integrate six of the department's 28 companies with the departments' 13 black firefighters. Two black firefighters were assigned to each of the six fire companies and one assumed a fire communications position. On July 6, 1963 Bernard C. Lewis and Charles L. Belle Jr. were assigned to Engine Co. 5. William W. Kersey and Herman O. Brown were assigned to Engine Co. 17. Roscoe W. Friend and Frederick J. Robinson were assigned to Engine Co. 12. Robert L. Myers and Calvin Wade were assigned to Engine Co. 11. Ralph Hutchins was assigned to Truck Co. 4. After a temporary assignment working out of the Chief's office, another first for Blacks, Arthur C. St. John was assigned to the fire communications center in Monroe Park, which also was another first assignment for blacks. Lt. Oscar L. Blake and Lt. Arthur L. Page remained at Engine Co. 9 under a white captain and over the white firefighters transferred to Engine Co 9. The black firefighters had consistently demonstrated competency and commitment to the department while battling subtle discrimination. Fire station No. 9 was built in 1902 and demolished in 1968. On Saturday, July 1, 2000 the Southwest Corner of 5th and Duval Street became a historical highway landmark.
Outside of Richmond many black firefighters nationwide began to demand equal rights also. On October 3, 1970 the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (Keep The Fire Burning For Justice) was founded. Black Brothers Combined joined the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters later. In 1974, under the combined efforts of Theodore Fuller, Roscoe Friend, Norville Marshall, James Duke Stewart III, Everette Jasper, Alvin Mosby and others, Black Brothers Combined Professional Firefighters of Richmond, Virginia Inc. was formed. James "Duke" Stewart, Jr. was Black Brothers Combined (BBC) mentor. The group was formed to ensure equality within the fire department. They established as their motto, "To Obtain the Unattained." At its inception the bureau had only one black Lieutenant, Charles L. Belle, one black Captain, Arthur L. Page and approximately 78 black firefighters . On July 17, 1974, BBC initiated a class action job discrimination lawsuit. The lawsuit charged racial discrimination in hiring assignments, transfers and promotions. In March, 1977, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction barring further permanent promotions in the fire bureau until the lawsuit was decided. A judge ruled against the black firefighters and a federal judge upheld the decision in December, 1978, one month after the arrival of the bureau's first black chief, Ronald C. Lewis.
The hiring of the former Philadelphia Battalion Chief was historic for another reason. He was the first top man who did not rise through the ranks of the Richmond Fire Bureau. Under Chief Lewis' command a 60-hour workweek dropped to 56 hours, modern equipment replaced old apparatus and firefighters received new uniforms. Chief Lewis headed a department of 510 employees and protected 62.5 square miles. Also under his leadership, a highly skilled river rescue team was developed, a Hazardous Materials Unit was created and the Fire Information Management System, which computerized all information in the department, was installed. Even though the discrimination lawsuit was dismissed by the court system, the City of Richmond made significant changes in the hiring and promotion process within the Bureau of Fire. On December 26, 1979, Captain Arthur L. Page was promoted to Deputy Battalion Chief. He was the first Black to rise through the ranks from firefighter to Deputy Battalion Chief where he worked until his retirement. On Sunday, February 10, 2002 during Black History Month, Deputy Battalion Chief Arthur L. Page was honor at his church by family, friends and co- workers for his accomplishments throughout his fire department career and life. A portrait of Chief Arthur L. Page, was commission by James "Duke" Stewart, III and unveiled by Arthur C. St. John and Fredrick J. Robinson.
On November 3, 1979 history was made again in the Richmond Fire department, Barbara J. Hicks-Spring the first female and first black female firefighter was hired. On July 11, 1988 Tina Watkins was hire as the second female and second black female firefighter. She was promoted to Lieutenant on September 20, 1997. With this appointment, Lt. Watkins was the only female officer and the first female in Fire Prevention. Tina Watkins was appointed to Captain on May 3, 2003. Deputy Battalion Chief Page and others like him led the way for Division Chief John E. Tunstall, Division Chief Larry Tunstall, Division Chief Alvin Mosby, Battalion Chief Norville Marshall, and Battalion Chief Everette Jasper and others to rise to the top ranks within Fire and Emergency Services department today. They began their careers in the Richmond Fire Department as firefighters and through the years they worked their way up through the ranks with hard work, determination and dedication to be promoted. John E. Tunstall has risen through the ranks from firefighter to Fire Marshall Chief. He became a firefighter August 17, 1970. During his years in the department, John was promoted to Lieutenant in February 1976, Captain in January 1979, Deputy Battalion Chief on March 17, 1984, Battalion Chief in 1986 and Division Chief in 1987. John was the first to serve as Fire Marshall Chief, one of the top four positions in the department before moving on to the City of Hopewell, Virginia. John is currently the Chief of Hopewell fire department, the first African American to hold this position, making history again.
Larry R. Tunstall, a 34-year veteran, was the first to serve as Chief of Operations/Administration, another of the top four positions of Richmond Fire and Emergency Services. He was hired as a firefighter on September 29, 1969. Larry was promoted to Lieutenant in February 1976, to Captain in May of 1979, Deputy Battalion Chief in 1984, to Battalion Chief in 1987, to Division Chief on June 10, 1998, and Fire Marshall Chief on August 26, 2002. On September 12, 2003 Larry was appointed Chief/Director of Fire and Emergency Services. Larry R. Tunstall is the first African American to come through the ranks to the top position. Alvin W. Mosby Sr., a 35-year veteran, has risen through the ranks from firefighter to become Chief of Operations/Administration. He was hired as a firefighter on November 20, 1968, promoted to Fire Inspector on April 26, 1976, Lieutenant on November 2, 1979, Captain on September 17, 1983, Battalion Chief on October 3, 1987 and on August 26, 2002 was promoted to Division Chief of Operations/Administration. This is another of the top four positions of Richmond Fire and Emergency Services.
Joseph Jenkins Jr., a 33-year veteran is currently serving as Commander of Training Academy was hired on April 6, 1970 as a firefighter and later promoted to Lieutenant on June 25, 1983 and to Captain on October 7, 1989. This is another of the top four positions of Richmond Fire and Emergency Services. Don J. Horton, a 23-year veteran is currently serving as Acting Fire Marshall Chief as of August 2001. Horton was hired on April 31, 1980, promoted to Lieutenant on October 3, 1987, Captain on April 21, 1990 and Deputy Fire Marshall on May 5, 2001 and currently appointed to Battalion Chief on April 1, 2003. Making this the fourth top position held by African Americans.
Over the years Richmond has seen many changes, with the name change from the Richmond Fire Department to Richmond Fire and Emergency Services. On November 1, 2000, Black Brothers Combined Professional Firefighters Inc. (BBC) changed its name to Brothers and Sisters Combined Professional Firefighters, Inc. (B&SCPFF). on May 3, 2003 there were 14 African Americans promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and 4 promoted to the rank of Captain. This was the first time in the history of Richmond Fire and Emergency Services that this many promotions of African Americans were made simultaneously. Our brothers who started us out have stayed together and have now formed a retired firefighters group called Engine Company # 9 and Associates, thus showing us that we must continue to stand together within as well as after retirement. Although we have African Americans in the four top positions of Richmond Fire and Emergency Services, as the journey continues, we must not stray from our goal "To Obtain the Unattained". With Unity and Strength, the goal of "To Obtain the Unattained" can be reached.
Hand drawn Chemical Cart: Oklahoma City Fire Museum
Charles W. Borden
The City of New Bedford is located on the south coast of Massachusetts, about 50 miles south of Boston. The area was first settled in 1652 and was originally part of Dartmouth. The original settlers were Quakers and Baptists who fled Plymouth Massachusetts because of religious persecution at the hands of Puritans.
In the mid 1700s Bedford Village, as it was then known, was a small whaling village on the west bank of the Acushnet River. As the demand for whale oil grew, so did the whaling fleet which sailed out of New Bedford. By 1823 New Bedford was the largest whaling port in the United States. The population of New Bedford has always been diverse. The early settlers, the Quakers and Baptists, sought freedom of thought and action. They were very open to people of other religions and nationalities. In the late 1700s free Africans began coming to New Bedford as seamen on whaling ships. Many of them became harpooners. Although there were some slaves in the early and mid 1700s, the moral and religious feelings of the town were strongly against such practices. In 1785, not a slave was held in the town and in 1783 taxpaying blacks had the right to vote. Before and during the Civil War, New Bedford was an active station for the underground railroad. Through the port of New Bedford, hundreds of slaves were led to freedom. The Quakers were concerned for all people. They were against violence, and in New Bedford all blacks were safe, protected by whites and blacks alike. Frederick Douglas, the great writer, politician, orator and abolitionist, was received in New Bedford in 1837 as a runaway slave. He worked for many years on the docks and left in 1841. He influenced an entire nation and helped to put an end to slavery.
The New Bedford Fire Department was organized in Jan.30, 1834. At this time it was an honor to be a fireman and many politicians and businessmen were members. The Department consisted of six pumpers, which were operated by hand and one ladder truck. In April, 1842, members of the department were paid $10.00 a year for their services. After a major fire destroyed the center of the city in 1860, the department began to change from the obsolete hand pumpers to the new steam engines.
Charles W. Borden was born a free man in Westport, Massachusetts. As a young man he moved to New Bedford and lived at 30 Bedford St., near fire station no.4. He was the first African American Firefighter on the New Bedford Fire Department. He joined the Fire Department on Nov.9, 1868, and was assigned to Steam Engine Co.No.4, the "Cornelius Howland." stationed at Bedford and Sixth St. in the south central part of the city. He was a paid member of the department and was assigned the duties of hose reel driver. Apart from the fire department, he worked as a hostler. After 15 years of service, he left the department in 1883.
Thomas J. Marginson, New Bedford Fire Dept.
Special thanks to Larry Roy, Curator, New Bedford Fire Museum" for his expertise and Chris Anderson at Reale Image Specialty Design for the photo enhancement.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
By Shirley F. Lerner
Civilian firefighting in San Antonio was brought to a near halt during the Civil War. Most of the volunteers from its two fire companies entered into military service and went away to do battle. Firefighting in San Antonio was left to the Confederate soldiers who were stationed in the city, to slaves, and to a handful of remaining volunteers. At war's end, the Milam Company No.1 and Alamo Company No.2 were nearly decimated. Only 10% of the Milam's 82 charter members survived the War. Records of Company No.2 do not indicate numbers lost to battle, but it is safe to assume that they also suffered numerous casualties.
When hostilities ceased, a reorganization of the two companies was obviously necessary. Within a few years, civic minded individuals replenished the ranks and the two groups once again functioned at full force. The repopulated organizations then set out to re-equip their personnel. San Antonio was in a financial bind during Reconstruction and could not afford significant modern machinery for its firefighters. Consequently, William A. Menger, chief of Company No. 2, gave the city its first steam pumper on June 12, 1868. He purchased it for $4000.00 from a company in New York, paid for its shipment, and had it hauled to San Antonio from the Port of Galveston. The Milam Company on the other hand did not acquire a steam pumper until 1875. This purchase, augmented by Mayor French, was paid for with City funds. The seven year hiatus between the time Co. No.2 acquired a steamer and Co. No.1 had none must have caused some heated incidents between the rivals. The enhanced firefighting advantage produced by Menger's engine made his company more efficient than the Milam. Although there are no documented scuffles between the two organizations, it is safe to assume that some jealousy must have occurred as a result of the disparity.
On January 29, 1869, the San Antonio Turn Verein, an athletic club, organized an additional fire company. On May 30, 1871, the Turner Hook and Ladder Company was chartered. Until a paid fire department was established, this company served the community well.
Interestingly at the Civil War's end and one year prior to the re-organization of the two original fire companies, two new groups of volunteers, Companies No.3 and No.4. were formed. They were comprised of black men who were either freedmen or were former slaves of the Confederate soldiers serving in San Antonio. Very little is known about Company No. 4 except for the fact that it began in 1866, it never applied for a charter, and disbanded, quietly, in 1881. A little more is known about Company No.3 because it was lauded for helping Alamo Co. No.2 during the "Alamo Fire" in 1874. San Antonio Directories list the names of the officers of the two companies. A further check of the personnel indicates that these volunteers were employed as messengers, wagon drivers, or common laborers. Only one man, Jasper Thompson, held a more distinguished professional position. He was the proprietor of the barber shop in the Menger Hotel . With perhaps some guidance from William Menger, Thompson founded Company No.3 and served as its foreman. In their book, The San Antonio Fire Department- 1854-1976, Frank and Genie Myer mention that the local Freedman's Bureau had a hand in establishing the black fire companies. No documents can be found, however, to substantiate the claim.
The saga of the "colored" volunteer fire companies is a significant addition to the history of Reconstruction and it's aftermath in San Antonio. Since volunteer fire companies enjoyed considerable prestige and political influence, it is likely that local blacks were attempting to acquire these goals by organizing fire companies. Little is known about these groups because the general population in the city resented and ignored them. At the time of their inception, the two original fire companies were struggling to re-organize. Some felt the newly established black brigades were a detriment to the re-building of the Milam and Alamo Companies. Nevertheless, the two black volunteer organizations remained long after Reconstruction's end. In 1873, seven years after its founding, a charter was granted Fire Company No.3 during Mayor Giraud's administration. This action is significant because it shows that the white community had accepted some black progress. Perhaps a few of the councilmen had formed political ties with the black community. From then on, however, City Council records and newspaper articles make little mention of Fire Company No. 3.
The idea that there were political ties between the black volunteers and some white leaders is furthered by the fact that companies No. 3 and No. 4 selected two prominent whites to represent them when City Council elected a fire chief in 1878. J.H. Kampmann, a well known businessman and alderman, was chosen by Co. No.3 and Edward Braden, a government contractor and future chief of Co. No.1, was selected by Co. No.4. It is true that negative attitude toward blacks disallowed their rightful self-representation in the election, but obvious political ties with important urban leaders permitted some recognition by the white community.
During the two decades of the black fire companies' existence, the City Council did not provide funds for them. At their request, the white volunteers were continually granted monies for equipment and maintenance. City records indicate that Companies No.3 and No.4 did not ask for funds until 1886 when Company No.3 requested assistance. Perhaps the city had prohibited them to file such petitions in the past. Whether or not their equipment was up to par, or whether or not they accepted private funds are unanswered questions.
After Co. No.3 requested money from City Council on December 6, 1886, the Fire Committee suggested that the company no longer "warrants continuance" and moved to disband it. Apparently, as soon as the blacks threatened to become a financial burden, their public service no longer had any value. By 1888, Fire Company No.3 was but a memory of the Reconstruction Era.
Hand drawn Hook and Ladder Wagon : Oklahoma City Fire Museum
by Darrick Hart
The involvement of African-Americans in Columbias fire services can be traced back to the 1840s. During the "volunteer days" as they were called, African-Americans worked for predominantly white fire companies and founded their own predominantly black fire companies. African-Americans who worked for white volunteer fire companies were hired as drivers. In the " volunteer days" the fire engines were horse drawn, and he men who drove them had to be able to handle a team of horses at very high speed. This was a difficult task, but African-Americans proved that they could handle the job. Their ability to handle horse-drawn fire engines made them popular throughout white and black communities.
In addition to driving the fire engines, African-Americans cared for the horses, cleaned the stables, and stoked the boilers of the steam pumpers. These were not glamorous jobs, but African-Americans performed them diligently. Despite having to perform these menial tasks, the African-Americans were still considered an important part of the volunteer fire company.
One of the things that helped bolster the popularity of African-American drivers during the "volunteer days" was their performance in the firemens tournaments. During the "volunteer days" fire departments from all around the state would come together to compete in firemens tournaments and to participate in parades. The tournaments helped the firemen keep their skills sharp. It also helped them stay busy when there were no fires to fight. Most of the tournaments consisted of a three day program of foot races, reel contests, and fire engine races. Many people attended the events, during the 1880s firemen were more popular than baseball players.
Although African-Americans competed in predominantly white tournaments, no black companies were allowed to compete against white companies. The tournaments that black fire companies held were just as successful as the tournaments held by their white counterparts. Thousands of spectators came out to see them compete. The stands were filled with black and white spectators who cheered the great skills of the firemen. It was not an unfamiliar sight to see white and black faces in the crowd of an African-American competition. The tournaments provided a rare opportunity for black and white people to come together, free from the racial tensions of the time.
In the 1870s, the city had two black companies, the Vigilant Fire Company and the Enterprise Fire Company. In the 1850s, the Vigilant Fire Company had been a city sponsored unit with white officers and black firemen; eventually it became an all black fire company. The city had three predominantly white fire companies, the Phoenix Hook and Ladder Company, the Palmetto Fire Company and the Independent Fire Company. The Phoenix Hook and Ladder Fire Company was an all white fire company and no black men were allowed to join. Any black male could join the remaining companies. Slaves were also allowed to join these companies if they had permission from their masters.
The black fire companies served the city for more than thirty years. Black fire companies fought side by side with white fire companies. The black and white firemen got along well and they often shared in the liquor when a jug was passed around at a conflagration.
There was a good deal of cooperation between some of the white fire companies and the black fire companies. For example, during the late 1860s the city was ravished by a series of fires. As a result, the white and black fire companies suffered damage to their fire equipment. At the time, the city was responsible for supplying the fire companies with fire equipment. Each fire company petitioned for more fire hose. After petitioning the city and getting no response, the Vigilant Fire Company, The Enterprise Fire Company and Independent Fire Company joined forces and wrote a joint petition to the mayor. The show of cooperation between the fire companies illustrated the camaraderie among firemen, despite their race.
During the "volunteer days" there were two major incidents that affected the relationship between black firemen and the community. The first incident took place in 1880. In the Fall of that year a parade was supposed to be held for the opening of the State Fair. The parade committee asked the white and black fire companies to participate in the parade. Rumors, however, spread that this was a trap designed to massacre African-Americans, as a result only thirty-three black firemen from the Vigilant Fire Company participated in the parade and no firemen from the Enterprise Fire Company participated. Fortunately no one was harmed and the parade was a success, but the incident planted seeds of distrust in the hearts of African-American firemen.
The biggest event that affected the relationship between African-American firemen and the city took place in 1892. On December 21, the Vigilant Fire Company and the Enterprise Fire Company rushed to the scene of a fire. As always, they performed above and beyond the call of duty. once the fire was extinguished, two of the African-American firemen entered the building to investigate the fire. Shortly after they had entered the building they were ordered to leave by a white police officer. They refused and were immediately arrested by the officer. the next morning they were fined ten dollars by the Mayors Court and released. On of the men arrested was John L. Simons. Simmons was president of the Vigilant Fire Company and a board member of the citys fire masters. The fire masters were an executive board established by the city. They investigated fires and established fire codes. The board was composed of both white and black firemen, who worked for the local volunteer fire companies.
Simons believed that he had been treated unjustly. He argued that as a member the Board of Fire Masters he had the right to enter any building during the performance of his duties. In protest, he called an emergency meeting of the Vigilant Fire Company and the Enterprise Fire Company. At the meeting they agreed to relinquish their allegiance to the city of Columbia. In a letter published in The State, they wrote:
"Where as the action of the police Wednesday and the decision of the Mayors Court this morning indicated that the people of Columbia do not appreciate our efforts. Therefore, be it resolved that we the colored firemen, of the Vigilant and Enterprise Companies, do hereby withdraw or allegiance to the fire department of Columbia, S.C."
The Vigilant Fire Company and Enterprise Company never worked for the city again, despite this fact, African-Americans continued to drive fire engines for white fire companies.
In 1903 the city ended its contract with the volunteer fire departments and organized the first paid fire department. The new fire department was composed of the old volunteer fire companies. The paid fire department was divided into three companies. The Columbia number Three, The Independent Number One and the Phoenix Hook and Ladder Company.
Columbias paid fire department opened on February 1, 1903, under the direction of Chief William J. May When May became chief, he and many others requested that the city retain the services of the African-American drivers. The drivers were an important part of the fire department and their performance was critical to the success of the new department. The experience that the African-American drivers had could not be replaced. This made them the best men for the job. The African-Americans were hired and remained employed by the city until 1921, when all hose-drawn apparatus were discontinued.
Courtesy of Columbia SC fire museum
To commemorate the opening of the paid fire department a photo was taken of the Independent Number One. Present in the photo was Chief May, the Mayor and all the members.
[ Image missing ]
Photo courtesy of Columbia SC Fire Museum
Other cities used slaves in their fire departments some of them will be listed further on.
Post card from the collection of Arthur P." Smokestack" Hardy Inscription:
Museum of the Newark Fire Department Historical Association
"Minehaha" Engine Company No1
Unknown artist's idea of Newark's first steam pumper, 1871. Driver Wm. Camfield, Engineer Isaac Haulenbeckon back step. Gig with Chief Engineer Ellis Carhuff and Aide Lorenzo Trent.
Lorenso Trent shown on the far side of the chief engineer riding the other horse. A note by Arthur P. Hardy that when Carhuff made chief he took Trent as his Driver.
No history of Black Firefighters would be complete with out mention of one black man with a passion for black fire history. His story begins in Baltimore, Maryland almost 100 years ago. He was witness to the destruction of the Great Fire of Baltimore of 1903. He died December 3rd, 1995. His name was Arthur P. Hardy but he soon became Smokestack Hardy being named after the old smoking steam engines.
Smokestack lived his whole life dedicated to collecting historical information about black firefighters. He attempted to do with a manual typewriter and the US Postal Service what others are doing with computers and the internet. His collection grew each day as he corresponded with firefighters all over the world. He admonished all who desired to obtain information or collectable items to not belittle any response to your plea. Be diligent in replying to all correspondence. His contribution is invaluable.
If ever you are able to visit a museum with his stuff in it dont pass it up. He was on top of every event in the fire service. He depended on his fire correspondents to Ring In keeping him posted. When he answered the letter he would always make reference to your ring of (m-d-y). His reputation did not skip notice of the media of the day. Ebony Magazine wrote him up on two occasions and local media did some feature atricles. Photos of his living quarters proved his ability to collect anything fire related. Reporters had a hard time finding a place to sit. He would collect anything related to fire.
Being an auxiliary firefighter with engine 13 of Baltimore and holding the title of Fire Photographer was the high point in his life. He held cards from fire departments far and wide allowing him to pass through the fire lines. He was Americas #1 black fire buff.
A private museum operated in the home of Guy Cephus displays a part of the collection of Smokestack Hardy. You should contact Guy Cephus at 410-462-3553 or write to 203 North Carey St. 1st floor, Baltimore MD. 21223. Guy will be happy to open up for you but you need to contact him first to be sure his is in.
Given by Larry M. Scalise
In January of 1885, five black men were hired in the Omaha Fire Department to form Hose company #12. A few years later they moved to another station and designated hose company #11. Some of the early members of the Omaha black fire company were Capt. Joseph H. Henderson, Captain Scott Irving, Lieutenant Frank Johnson, Lieutenant E.W. Watts, Driver John Taylor, Pipmen Woodson Porter and Lewis Selby they remained segregated for sixty two years. They served the Department well even though for all these years they were isolated. The first change came in 1940 when one of the members was moved to the Bureau of Fire Prevention and Inspection. By the 50s the number had grown enough to man two companies. In a photo taken in 1954 black firefighters were identified as Frank Stearns, Walter Agee, Cappell Curtis, Eli McClinton, Paul Orduna and auxiliary firefighter Dick Greer. Integration of the department came in 1957.
Photos copied from The History of the Omaha Fire Department
The migration of former slaves to Omaha was in a large part due to employment offered in the meat packing industry. Transportation up river from Mississippi and Louisiana was easy to come by work was exchanged for a ride on the river boats that plied the river.
Given by Dot and Bill Ketchum
"The first All-Negro fire-fighting Company was organized in Nashville on January 15, 1885. This All-Negro Unit was identified as Engine Company Number Four, and it was located on Woodland Street in East Nashville. C. C. Gowdy was the Captain of this company. His personnel was comprised of the following men: Aaron Cockrill, Lieutenant; Henry Driver, Engineer; James Trimble, Fireman; James Watkins, Pipeman; John Calhoun, Pipeman; Mose Hopkins, Pipeman; and John Harris, Pipeman.
"A third-class AHRENS Fire Engine was the equipment of Company Number Four: "The William Stock" was its name. Two horses names "Mark" and "Judge" pulled the engine. The hose cart was a four-wheeler. Two horses, "Buck" and "Morgan", pulled the hose cart. The hose cart reel carried 1,350 feet of two and one half inch hose.
"When Mechanized fire-fighting came into existence, Company Number Four was mechanized on March 24, 1920. The mechanization of Company Four marked the final company in Nashville to reach this stage. Company Number Four received a Pumper that had previously been used by Engine Company Number Ten.
"On January 2, 1892, when Weakley Warren Furniture Store was destroyed by fire, Captain C. C. Gowdy, Harvey Ewing, and Stanley Allen, members of Engine Company Four, were killed. The north wall of the furniture store feel onto the Phillips and Buttorff Company where they were standing directing a stream of water on the fire.
"On February 20, 1923, Company Four moved to 12th Avenue, North and Jefferson Street ("Goat Hill"), to replace Engine Company Eleven, which had been operating in the "R. O. Tucker" Hall. With the move from East Nashville to North Nashville, Company Four became Company Eleven. With the remodeling of the Company Eleven Hall in 1930, the name of the Fire Hall changed from the "R. O. Tucker" to the Reuben B. Richardson" Fire Hall.
"Ben Christian, a member of Engine Company Eleven, while rolling hose on 12th Avenue, North between Jo Johnston and Gay, was struck by a hit and run driver of a truck on January 17, 1939. He died January 31, 1939."
Information by Chris Clapp and Rev. Ron Ballew
What began in 1858 as an all volunteer fire department , with the usual buckets and ladders with cisterns for a water supply expanded to a paid fire department in the late 1800s. Unlike a number of cities Danville had an all black fire company early on. Number Two Station at 705 N. Walnut St. was built in 1898 and was occupied from the first day by black fire fighters. There may have been black volunteers before this time but we have no record of them.
Engine house #2 as it now stands
A white firefighter named Sterling Ford who joined the department in 1946 recorded much of the history of the department and his comments about the black firefighters sums up the feeling in the community. "They were some of the best damn firefighters this city ever had."
Some but not all of those who served : Buford, John- Chavis, John- Cunningham, James- Day, Bud- Fletcher, Bill- Gaddie, Granville- Hunter, Morris- Kenner, C.N.- McDonald, E.H.- Miller, Marshall- Morris, Dallas Dudley- Nelson, Bill- Nichols, George R.- Norton, T.J.- Nosby, Jos. H.-Outlaw, Abe- Rosell, Dewey- Stuart, W.S.- Thompson, Henry- Wilson, Jos.P.
The earliest firefighters were not native to Danville but came from other states. Dallas Dudley Morris was born in Shelby, Alabama in 1878 was employed in 1905. Joseph P. Wilson was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1873, employed in 1905. John Chavis was born in Chambersburg, Indiana in 1861, employed 1905. James a Cunningham was born in 1864 in Mansfield, Tennessee employed 1906. Cunningham had served as a police office prior to being firefighter. His previous experience suited him for a leadership roll and he served as Captain for a number of years.
These men took on a special roll in the community. Children from the neighborhood knew that they were welcome at the fire station and the men took on the roll of councilor. The door was always open and a friendly face was there to greet them. A pool table, horse shoes and trapeze were available to them. A hungry child knew where to get a meal and get his face washed or get his shoe repaired. They took in the whole neighborhood when there was a need. Black children and white children felt the same welcome and even on the days when they were off duty a fishing lesson on how to catch crapie and blue gill was in order. A special bond was created between the children and the firemen and a wave of recognition from one of them as they sped to a fire was source of pride.
The children would sit wide eyed as the firemen talked about some of the fires they had fought. The story of one fire was told and retold and each time with the same fascination as before. February 17, 1915 a fire at the Woodbury Book Store, Will Stuart and Clarence Kenner were working the fire 54 feet up on a ladder when the wall collapsed killing two fire fighters and breaking Stuarts arm. Kenner was thrown from the ladder and landed inside of the walls. He was not seriously hurt in the fall but was unable to free himself, fellow firefighters played hose lines around him to keep the fire away but the thing that sustained him throughout the ordeal was a picture of Jesus that had fallen to lean against the wall at his feet. That picture was the inspiration that made him know that he would survive.
[ Image missing ]
In the early years politics played a big part in who got a job and who kept a job. There was no resentment in being segregated when the department was formed for they all knew that if an opening came at number two for a job it would go to a black man. With politics what it was no one would get the job that they didnt want.
The firemen of number two took pride in their station and its equipment. Shining brass and white washing the curb. Scrubbing floors until they shined. The uniforms were just as important. They were accomplished cooks and the meals they prepared were shared with many of the neighborhood children.
The district they served included the mercantile area and they responded to most of the major fires. It also included residence of both poor and rich. When a fire occurred in the more affluent neighborhoods they wanted the men from number two to respond as they had much confidence in their ability.
Integration came to the department in 1963 and the station that had been a neighborhood focal point was closed when a new station was built to replace it. The station was replaced but the memories of those who served and those who were served has not gone away. The full impact on the lives of the young children both black and white that saw the men that worked here as their heroes and roll models will never be known.
Information from Warren Robinson
A study of American History helps us to understand how the settlement of the colonies was undertaken. The move westward began slowly but always there was a push to move farther west. The Mississippi River had slowed the westward movement until the United States Government made a decision to move the five civilized tribes to land in what is now Oklahoma. The tribes were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole. These tribes had developed an advanced system of government, law enforcement and education of their people. The move began in 1820 with the last tribe being moved in 1842. Many of the Indians were slave owners and as such took their slaves with them. This is how a number of early black residents made the move.
During the war between the states large numbers of the dislocated Indians chose to fight for the South. The Indians had been promised territory of their own. Each tribe had been assigned a large tract of land and they were designated as Nations. After the war three things occurred that encouraged the movement of blacks to the new frontier.
First when Oklahoma became a state in 1907, in retribution for the Indians alliance with the South the Federal Government chose to eliminate the Indian Nations. Each Indian was allotted a parcel of land. There was also a large area of land in Oklahoma Territory known as unassigned land. In an earlier agreement with the Cherokee Indians a strip of land across Oklahoma below the border with Kansas was given as a passage way to the hunting grounds of the west. Pressure grew for the opening to settlement of all of these lands.
Second the emancipation gave the blacks a right to vote and they were encouraged to start new businesses and to settle on land offered by the Federal Government. Fliers were distributed across the South extolling the virtues of living in the new territories. Kansas was considered the promised land. At one time the State of Oklahoma was being considered for an all black state.
The third event was the demand for beef in the east. During the War Between the States the number of Buffalo declined and the number of Longhorn Cattle increased. The Longhorn had become wild and all that was needed to claim these cattle was to catch them and brand them then deliver them to market. These cattle were captured from all over what would later be the State of Texas and driven to rail heads for shipment to the east. One such location for the shipment of cattle was Abilene, Kansas. The drovers that herded these cattle had a long and dangerous trip to make. The Indians, Jayhawkers and natural events such as storms and floods claimed the lives of many a young cowboy. Most of these young men were in their teens and it was not difficult to sign on with one of the cattle companies. After such a journey many decided this was not the life for them and they chose to settle in one of the towns along the way. For a newly emancipated slave this could be a quick way to see what life was like in other parts and find a job. Wichita, Kansas was an attractive little town along the route.
The end result was that 27 all black towns were established in Oklahoma and as many in Kansas. Though few of them still survive. They failed because of economics. The depression of 1929 hit hard in this area and not only black communities but white communities failed as well.
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Richard and Sarah Robinson moved to Wichita, Kansas just prior to the 1870s with them their two sons George Walter and Samuel James, they were the only black family in Wichita at this time. It is said that when they first arrived they shared a house with 5 white men from Pennsylvania, the Robinsons having come from Pennsylvania as well. The children were able to watch the town of fourteen houses grow into a city. In mid-1870s a petition to make Wichita a town was delivered to Judge Reuben Riggs asking to incorporate. The petition had 123 signatures, one of which was Richard Robinson the only black person to sign. On the same document was the signature of only one woman. Catherine McCarty, who was to become the mother of "Billy the Kid". As the town grew and the children grew to be young men the town needed fire protection.
George Walter Robinson joined the Wichita fire department on November the 17, 1896 he was later promoted to Captain and served for 43 years. Fire Station #3 Engine and hose company was manned by an all black fire company. Some of the firefighters that served with him are Syl Anderson, William Whitted, C. A. Glover, Frank Hill and W. H. Jones. George Had a son named Gerald who also joined the Wichita Fire Department seven years after his father retired. Gerald had a son name Jess Warren Robinson who joined the Hutchinson, Kansas Fire Department seven years before his father retired and served until his retirement in 1996 as a captain. For 100 years a member of the Robinson family was in the fire service of Kansas. Warrens mother had a brother that also served in the Wichita Fire Department
by Rodney K. Smith and Arthur F. Rankin
Capt. P. Higginbotham, Chemical Engine Company No1
Early records of Black firefighters in the Columbus Fire Department are limited. Historical records indicate that perhaps the first Black firefighters entered the fire department some time after the Civil War. Firefighters P. Higginsbothom and J.M. Logan are believed to have been the first Black firefighters in Columbus.
By 1892, P. Higginsbotham, then the oldest firefighter in the service of the department, was Captain of Chemical Engine Company No. 1. This station was located at Oak Street and Marble Alley which was the Old 12 House. J.M. Logan was Lieutenant at the same fire station. History records indicate that this firehouse was manned by the "Colored Contingent." In 1892 two additional Black firefighters entered the fire department and were stationed at the Oak Street firehouse. These men were R.C. Smith and Jesse G. Payne.
Family records reveal that during his history years of service with the fire department Payne, never received a mark against his record. He attained the rank of Captain before he retired on January 1, 1931.
The waning years of the 1920s and early 1930s saw the end of a period in the history of blacks in the Columbus Fire Department. Almost immediately though, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, there emerged a new group of young men selected from a Civil Service eligibility list to undergo a thirty day period of concentrated and strictly-disciplined training in fire department procedures.
Thus in the summer of 1935 a new era begun. Installed in No. 8 Fire Station on North Twentieth Street were sixteen Black firefighter assigned to Pump Co. 8 and Truck Co. 5. Of these men, A. Green, J. Costen, W. Brown, V. Green W. Huckleby and J. Jones were promoted to Lieutenant, C. Alston and C. Johnson became Captains, w. Boyer and C. Jones became Battalion Chiefs and Herman Harrison became Deputy Chief, second in command only to the Chief of the department.
After sixteen Black firefighters entered the department in 1935, the following ten year period between 1937 and 1947, saw six additional men join their brothers. In 1948, eight additional firefighters entered the fire department. This brought the total number to twenty-eight, the highest number at any one time in the history of the department.
When the next group entered the department in February of 1954, a significant change took place. Fire Station No. 8 that had been previously occupied by all black, became desegregated.
Within the next eighteen year span, between 1955 and 1973, twelve additional firefighters joined the ranks. By the fall of 1973, the number of firefighters had dwindled to eighteen. In November of that year, litigation was initiated seeking redress under Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1975, the courts ruled in favor of he plaintiffs and thereafter, the City of Columbus developed a strong affirmative action program.
In April of 1980, Columbus first female firefighter entered the recruit training class. Diana Rissell graduated from the training academy in August 1980 and was assigned to Station No. 2.
In March of 1989 the African American firefighters began holding informal meetings to discuss the trials and tribulations that they were experiencing. They formed an organization and it was incorporated with the State in November of the same year. This organization is call the Columbus African American Firefighters Association. The organization motto is "African by Nature-American by Experience."
Maurice Gates was killed in line of duty 1982.
WPA Life Histories
During the depression years a number of oral histories were recorded by the Works Progress Administration. Below is an excerpt of one of these interviews of a Mr. Roberts of Athens, GA.
This is part of an interview by the WPA in 1937 of one J.H. Emerick, 157 First St. Athens, Georgia. My daddy was a member of the old Volunteer fire company and as I followed him in his love for fishing and hunting, I also belonged to the Volunteer fire company . I was a member of the 'Bloomfield Hose and Reel Company No. 4. We were known as the 'dirty dozen.' There were several different companies and we had great times together, even if we were always trying to do just a little bit better than the other company . I still have a medal that was given my father by his old company , for his good service in 1873. I was one of the first ones that stayed on the fire department when it organized as a paid department in 1900.
"Back in those old days, there were two cisterns down on the main street and rain water was run into these cisterns from gutters to be used to fight fires . One of the companies had one of those old time hand pumps and it took two men to use that pump to pump the water out of the cistern into another hose that would reach the fire . There was one or two companies of Negro volunteer firemen then also and they really did some good work. I stayed on the fire department about three years after it was re-organized and then I gave it up and went on a fishing trip.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Copied from the Los Angeles web site with permission of the webmaster.
Capt. Larry Schneider
HISTORY OF THE BLACK FIREMEN
October 1897 to September 1956
The Segregated Years
The Reference Source for this section is The LAFD Centennial 1886-1986 pages 92, 146-153 by Paul Ditzel.
George W. Bright
George W. Bright, hired October 2, 1897, was the first black member of the Los Angeles Fire Department. He was appointed by the Fire Commission as a callman and assigned to Engine Co. No. 6. Less than a month later on November 1, 1897 Bright was promoted to a full-time hoseman and assigned to Engine Co. No. 3. On January 31, 1900 He was promoted to Driver Third Class and assigned to Chemical Engine Co. No. 1.
George Washington Bright was born in 1862. He was a teamster prior to being hired by the LAFD. The City Fire Department Report of 1905 shows Lt. Bright assigned to Chemical Company No. 1 and living next door at 125 Belmont Ave.
On August 1, 1902 George Bright was promoted to Lieutenant. In those days chief officers made the promotions. However, before the commission would certify his promotion, Bright, being the first colored to express desires for such advancement was required to go to the Second Baptist Church and obtain an endorsement from his Minister and congregation.
Chemical Co. No.1/Hose Company No. 4- Segregation Begins
The Department, to avoid Bright from commanding white firemen, gathered up all the colored and Mexican-American firemen and formed the city's first all-black fire company:
Chemical Co. No.1 at 137 S. Belmont (129 Loma) Drive, across the street from the present site of Belmont High School.
W. W. Glenn
Prior to segregation Hoseman Glenn was assigned to Engine Company No. 4
Referred to as "The Hill", Chemical Co. No. 1 was closed in 1907 and Hose Company No. 4 went into service in the same station with the same all black crew.
At the turn of the century the demographics of Los Angeles were changing. It was decided to move the black firemen from Hose Co. 4 and its all-white area and move them to Fire Station 30, an emerging mixed-race neighborhood. In 1924 Hose Co. 4 was closed and Engine Co. 58 opened in the same building. The black firemen were transferred to Engine Co. 30.
On September 4, 1917 the City Council directed the fire commission to remove the white firemen from Fire Station 30 at 1401 S. Central Ave. and replace them with the black firemen from Hose Co. No 4.
Acting Chief Engineer O'Donnell resented the City Council's interference of internal fire department affairs and refused- only he had the authority to assign personnel. In addition, Engine 30 required an engineer and the city's Engineering Department had a policy of refusing to certify blacks. Blacks were only trained to operate chemical hose companies.
In the mid-20"s there was a sudden upsurge of men of color joining the fire service and a the need for a larger station intensified.
The battle to make Engine 30 an all-black station took seven years. Engine 30 was a popular assignment and the white firemen threatened to strike. Racial tensions mounted. Never-the-less on April 16, 1924 the white firemen were removed and the black firemen from Hose 4 were transferred in.
The fire station housed Engine 30 and Truck 11 (In those years it was the practice to number the truck companies in sequence rather than taking the number of the station. Therefore Engine Company 30 housed the 11th truck company to come into city service. In 1932 this was changed and both companies reflected the fire station number. Engine 30, Truck 30, Fire Station 30, or simply "30's".)
As more blacks joined the department Engine 30 became crowded. The firemen crowded the apparatus. The department's wrecker (heavy rescue) was assigned to Fire Station 30, simply because there was insufficient riding room for all the firemen on the engines and truck. Another station was needed.
On November 2, 1936, twelve years after the segregation of Engine 30 the white firemen were removed from Fire Station 14 and it also became all-black. Angry at being removed from their station, the whites trashed the building with garbage and fecal matter. The Battalion Chief ordered them back to clean up their mess.
Prior to 1940
Staffing levels were maintained as blacks left the job by choosing black replacements from the civil service list. As many as 400 names of eligible white candidates would be bypassed to reach a black on the list.
This procedure violated civil service regulations, but was nevertheless followed to insure perpetuation of all-black staffing levels at Fire Station 14 and 30.
Because the blacks were largely assigned to the two companies (five were in the fire prevention bureau and six assigned to supply and maintenance) the highest rank they could hope to achieve was captain. There were at that time only six black captains. White captains numbered 287. The department was satisfied with maintaining the status quo and could point to all-black companies in other large cities, notably New York, Chicago and Baltimore.
The black firemen and their community leaders had mixed feelings. Many of the older black firefighters preferred the system as it stood. Some saw it as an advantage, as an easier chance for their individual advancement. Shift-trading was informal, but even more the blacks feared the probable hostility they could encounter if transferred to a white company. Another proposal was put forward by the black community and many black firefighters: convert Engine 21 and 22 to all-black companies which would open up promotional opportunities for more captains and enable the department to form a battalion of all black companies led by black chiefs on each platoon.
A third approach was the one primarily espoused by the younger black firefighters who felt that the existing system was blocking them from promotions, even within their own stations. With all the positions in their own two companies already filled they had no place to go. They planned to make the LAFD their career and wanted immediate and total integration of the blacks at Fire Stations 14 and 30 into stations throughout the city. They found strong 14th Amendment Constitutional support for their ideas as well as the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Los Angeles' black-owned newspapers.
John H. Alderson was appointed Chief Engineer on March 7, 1940. A Rhodes Scholar nominee who studied for the ministry, Alderson introduced the "academy concept" to fire training, including the Drill Tower- a new innovation in recruit training. Promoted directly from the rank of Battalion Chief, some believed that Civil Service specifications were changed so he could qualify for the exam. Alderson personally favored segregation, however he knew that integration of the department was inevitable. The national mood of the time was that segregation was discriminatory as evidenced by a number of court decisions. The chief engineer rejected the idea of an all-black battalion- a popular idea amongst some members of the Black community. That would only perpetuate and broaden a longstanding problem and would likely result in federal court intervention. Alderson's plan was to proceed slowly, starting with integrating recruits during training at the drill tower. He believed that in less than five years most white firefighters would grow accustomed to working 24-hour platoon duty with blacks.
Slow integration was as much of an anathema to the blacks as was immediate, forced integration was to Alderson. The chief's position was that the city charter required him to make appointments, promotions and transfers "for the best interest of all the people of Los Angeles." He further pointed out that during his 13-year administration, no black had been passed over for promotion or denied appointment to the LAFD. Forced integration, said Alderson, would determinably impact the morale and efficiency of the department.
Time and time again during the next three years, Alderson would say, "The chief engineer's responsibility is not to engage in any social experimentation." The black firefighters did not, of course, perceive of integration as a social experiment, but their constitutional right. As tempers flared on both sides of the issue, 90 percent of the department's white members began a campaign, including fund-raising, to support Alderson in the event the matter reached the courts.
By 1954 there were 2500 whites and 74 blacks on the LAFD. Census figures showed blacks accounted for 10 percent of the city's population, but only 3 percent of the department's members.
In July 1953, Norris Paulson, a relatively unknown United States congressman defeats Bowron's bid for reelection.
Neither Bowron nor Poulson were friends of integration, Poulson had, in fact voted against fair employment practices legislation.
Chief Alderson had remained officially neutral during the election but Poulson resented his close ties to Bowron and sought a way to oust him. The integration issue provided Poulson with a ploy to force Alderson's resignation.
Poulson was in office barely a month when a NAACP supported "Petition Concerning Racial Discrimination and Segregation in the Fire Department" was sent to Alderson and the fire commission.
Among the petition's allegations:
Blacks were not appointed to vacancies unless they existed at Stations 14 and 30.
Blacks were not permitted to transfer from those stations to other companies in the city.
Blacks were denied promotions above that of captain's rank.
"These circumstances constitute discrimination contrary to the constitution and laws of the state and nation, in that equal protection of the laws is being denied the Negro firemen," said the petition.
Mayor Poulson's reply
Before the commission could take up the matter, Poulson wrote its members that if the allegations "are true, I am sure that you will agree that such practices are abhorrent in a democratic nation such as ours. I trust that your board will take such summary action as may be necessary to completely eliminate any such unfairness." That "summary action" was, of course, a thinly-disguised demand that the fire commission discharge Alderson which it had neither the votes, nor the power to do, without itself violating the city charter.
Ignoring Poulson's letter and burying the petition as Item No. 22 on their agenda, commissioners told NAACP attorneys in attendance that the department was not practicing segregation. If they had proof to the contrary, they were to produce it at the next commission meeting.
From that day forward, the integration issue escalated into a full-blown problem with emotionalism overwhelming rational approaches to resolving the issue.
For the first time, the media entered the fray and itself became embroiled in the problem. A Los Angeles Mirror editorial cartoon portrayed Alderson as a snail on integration. Other newspaper, radio and television accounts encouraged the public perception that Alderson was a racial bigot arrogantly opposing the mayor and the law of the land. By inference, the white members of the department were seen as rednecks themselves. The City Council, sensing the rapidly-heating issue, kept silent and provided no leadership out of the morass.
Paul Ditzel, a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, wrote a lead editorial which attempted to put the issue in a perspective that would calm mounting hysteria. The results were not at all what Ditzel expected. Proponents of forced integration attacked his personal and professional integrity. The NAACP suggested that Alderson, himself, had ghost-written the editorial. Alderson, in fact, never saw the editorial until the day it was published.
Pressure put upon the Daily News publisher resulted in Ditzel being stripped of his column. When firefighters discovered his byline missing from the paper, the department's grapevine telephones passed the word among firefighters and their families. The Daily News switchboard was so jammed by firefighters or their wives, friends and families canceling subscriptions that reporters could not telephone their stories to the clerk desk.
The call-in campaign boomeranged. The publisher charged Ditzel with instigating the cancellations and put him off-duty for 10 days, prior to formal termination. The publisher subsequently relented, but Ditzel was demoted to police reporter and later wrote the last story ever to appear in the paper. The Daily News, for years in financial trouble, declared bankruptcy and its assets were purchased by Poulson's foremost supporters, the Chandler family-owned Los Angels Times and Mirror.
Fire Commission orders Chief Alderson to submit a report in answer to the NAACP petition.
December 10, 1953
Alderson made that report and noted that coincidental with the filing of the petition, nearly half of the department's black firefighters had applied for transfer to all white fire stations. Prior to that time, the only transfer request were to the fire prevention bureau and other special assignments.
"I respectfully recommend that your board stand on Section 78 of the city charter and that we continue to appoint, promote and transfer employees of the department for the best interests of all the City of Los Angeles." -Alderson
The fire commission approved Alderson's recommendation.
January 7, 1954
Poluson met with the Fire Commission and Alderson and issued a news release:
"The Board of Fire Commissioners has decided that there should be, commencing within the next six months, a gradual correction of these practices (racial segregation). I have acceded to this program of gradual correction of these policies."
Four of the five commissioners and Alderson issued their own statement which said they had agreed to nothing of the kind.
January 9, 1954
The NAACP threatened federal court action and obtained a Superior Court order to take depositions from Alderson and the fire commissioners. Exactly what was testified to in those depositions is not known, other than the commission had learned that 1700 white firefighters had written Alderson that they would quit or retire if blacks were assigned to their stations.
White supremacy groups throughout the United States deluge fire stations with black-hate mail, posters and pamphlets.
May 17, 1954
While Alderson admitted it only to his closest associates, he knew the battle was lost and that racial tensions eventually would rip the department apart when Chief Justice Earl Warren of the United States Supreme Court delivered the landmark decisions in the cases of Brown et al versus Board of Education and Bolling versus Sharpe.
The historic decisions applied to school desegregation but their implications pertaining to the traditional operation of the LAFD rang loud and clear.
The fire commission immediately asked the city attorney to rule whether the Supreme Court and other decisions applied to the LAFD. The answer was in the affirmative and Alderson was asked by the commission to respond on July 1, 1954.
Alderson stubbornly reiterated his past position statements, while interjecting a new and headline-making statement: He would resign if the fire commission took over the assignment of personnel, transfers and other functions under his control.
"I will not remain to see it (the LAFD) torn down to a second, third and fourth rate department."
August 19, 1954- The Fact-Finding Committee
Four LAFD captains and an an auto fireman formed what they called a Fact-Finding Committee and appeared before the commission with a petition signed by 1885 firefighters who asked that no final decision be made on integration before October 14. At that time they would submit their report based on visits to 18 of the nation's largest city fire departments and questionnaires sent to 375 cities with populations over 43,000. The committee reportedly had raised $500,000 among firefighters, police officers and their families to fund the study.
Without its own investigatory resources, the commission decided to wait-and-see the committee's report while ordering Alderson to produce an integration plan.
September 2, 1954
The chief engineer submitted an integration plan and it was voted as "unsatisfactory and void of any worthwhile constructive suggestions."
Alderson was told to produce a specific blueprint for integration by September 30.
September 30, 1954
Alderson stunned and angered the commission by tossing the ball into their court:
"If it is your policy to transfer Negroes from Stations 14 and 30 to every station throughout the city, I do believe that I am entitled to know that and to be advised in order that I may advise you as to what procedure I will follow."
Mayor Poulson sets November 1, 1954 as a deadline for action.
Poulson ordered the board to "break up the two Negro fire stations...If the chief refuses or fails to comply...replace him with a man who does not regard himself as above the laws of our city, state and nation. If you don't take action...you will be removed as commissioners by request of the City Council." Poulson set November 1, 1954, as the deadline for action.
October 14, 1954
The Fact Finding Committee reported to the commission. Their findings were expectable and not at all what commissioners were looking for. The report spoke of "the natural barriers that exist between...the races," and of "rival political factions" competing for the black bloc" as the balance of power." Their conclusion urged the commission to "unequivocally reject forced integration."
October 28, 1954
Three days before Poulson's integration-or-get-fired deadline, the commission told Alderson that he was "hereby instructed, ordered and directed to initiate a gradual transfer of a part of the personnel now stationed at Stations 14 and 30."
During the next four months, Alderson transferred four blacks to two all-white stations. One of then almost immediately asked to be returned to his all-black station. The gradual integration program ground to an impasse, but the battle was far from over and would worsen before it was finally resolved.
Beset by integration concerns, Alderson was growing physically and emotionally ill. The firefighters still called him "Big John" - but not to his face. It was clear that his was but a delaying action until full integration occurred with or without him as chief engineer.
November 1, 1955
Alderson announced his intention to retire effective December 29, 1955.
The integration pressure cooker was, meanwhile, reaching the point of boilover. The battle spilled into the stations. Years of steadily-building tensions, frustrations, hate, rumors, propaganda and attacks upon Alderson by organizations and people who were perceived by the firefighters as knowing nothing about life in fire stations, provided all the necessary ingredients for turmoil.
The inevitable consequences were further complicated by some white firefighters who did not support segregation. They said they would not hesitate to work with blacks and were among the first to be ostracized by longstanding firefighter friends on and off duty. Several of them who openly challenged segregation were severely disciplined for insubordination and other charges.
As Alderson tested the mood of the firefighters by transferring blacks to all-white stations, he received little support from some chief officers and captains in the field, who frequently fueled the fires of hatred by their tacit encouragement of in-station opposition to integration. Their belief was that they were following the spirit of Alderson's policies and whatever means it took justified the ways. Apropos of the cliché: With friends like these, Alderson needed no more enemies.
The Hate Houses
Black firefighters and white firefighters unopposed to integration were transferred to what was referred to in the department as "punishment" or "hate houses". Most of the hate houses were located in Battalion 8 on the south side of the city in a mixed white and black area. Black as well as white firefighters in these hate houses took the full brunt of blatant and covert humiliations.
In those pre-integration stations where blacks were assigned, kitchen privileges were often denied and a steady stream of practical jokes, a firehouse tradition, turned vicious, unspeakable, degrading and deplorable. When six blacks were transferred to Fire Station 10, the campaign of day-and-night hazings and harassments pushed matters to the point of imminent violence.
The Stentorians, an organization of black firefighters formed during the integration period, took their name from the Greek word, stentor (powerful voice). They adopted a non-violent stance and the slogan, "We only fight the department on integration." The Stentorians felt compelled to mount a round-the-clock patrol to guard the black firefighters at Fire Station 10. A television newsman volunteered to provide the Stentorians with special microphones to pick up and record the night-long hazings, so they could be broadcast during CBS Channel 2 news telecasts.
Other media as eagerly sought out stories which would illustrate racism in the LAFD. The department seemed all too eager to provide them. Two black firefighters and six white pro-integration firefighters were assigned to completely replace the all-white members of Fire Station 78 in the San Fernando Valley. Not one of the new assignees knew the district of commercial buildings, restaurants and high-value homes in the hills south of the station. Winding streets in the residential area were often difficult to find, even by the firefighters they replaced.
The media was tipped. Headlines told of the dangers of Station 78's complement of officers and firefighters totally unfamiliar with hard-to-find locations in their first alarm district. The stories resulted in precisely the perception the tipsters' intended: Station 78 assignments were made to prove that immediate, forced integration was resulting in poor fire protection and hazards to residents in that area.
Both Alderson and the Stentorians learned that the situation at Fire Station 10 was approaching a crisis. At least one black firefighter was carrying a gun for self-protection. Alderson, convinced worsening hatreds could explode at any moment into bloodshed, summarily and without consulting the fire commission, transferred all blacks back to Fire Stations 14 and 30.
December 15, 1955
Outraged by the steady stream of media and other reports of uncontrolled hazings and degradations in the fire stations and Alderson's summary transfer order, the fire commission voted to immediately fire Alderson on grounds of insubordination.
The commissioners had flip-flopped so many times on integration, that nobody knew where all of them stood on any given day.
Secondly, the commission would have sharply criticized Alderson if he had not acted, and one or more firefighters were injured or killed. And, finally, Alderson had already said he would retire on a date that was only two weeks away. By formally-charging the chief engineer with insubordination and going through the long process of firing him, the commission would only prolong and probably intensify the integration misery.
The commission, realizing the shallow thought that went into their impetuous action, quietly let the dismissal matter drop.
Alderson retired on schedule and was replaced by Deputy Chief Frank Rothermel who said he not only fully-supported Alderson, serving as interim chief engineer, agreed to stay until Alderson's successor was named.
January 17, 1956
William L. Miller appointed as chief engineer. The first order of business was a solution to the integration problem. Miller asked for time to do it. By then, all combatants were so weary that they agreed to give it to him. Two weeks into his administration, Miller transferred eight black firefighters unopposed to integration, to Fire Station 7 at 2824 S. Main Street. Miller said he intended it as an experiment. The experiment at Fire Station 7 worked.
By the following September and with comparatively little fanfare or difficulty, all black firefighters were transferred into 17 of the city's 91 fire stations. Hazings continued intermittently, but the long agony was over. All-black Fire Stations 14 and 30 were no longer segregated. They became integrated, too.
During the 30 years following Alderson's departure, memories of the integration nightmare faded, but never vanished. In the retrospective of time, longstanding questions can be answered and several observations are germane. The foremost question over the years: Could Alderson have avoided the years of agony that wracked the department? Yes, but with some equivocations. Alderson was a highly-principled person, albeit stubbornly unyielding. He believed in segregation and he fervently convinced himself that his legal obligations under the city charter prohibited assignments based upon race, albeit that some of the city's laws ran counter to the supreme law of the land.
If Alderson is to be faulted, the criticism must stem from his failure to take definitive action when he realized integration was inevitable. He should have taken that action before the problem got beyond his control. Those who knew him best say that Alderson's charisma among members of the department and his leadership strengths were such that the firefighters would have accepted integration, however unhappily, if only he had acted sooner.
It must be footnoted, however, that Alderson received precious little help or direction from most of the parade of Poulson-appointed fire commissioners during the integration years. Many of them were either segregationists themselves, or waffled on the subject. Many officers in Alderson's administration thought they were helping him but were, in fact, compounding his problems. Alderson received no help at all from the City Council. And he neither expected nor got any from Poulson, who publicly-postured integration, but privately-supported the segregation status quo.
History demonstrates that valuable lessons can be learned from events of the past. With the integration horrors over, there were longstanding and positive fallouts...For starters, it helped propel one of the most outstanding black officers who ever served the department, Jim Stern, to become the LAFD's first battalion chief on February 6, 1968. Shern, thoroughly imbued with the LAFD's high standards of fire prevention and fire protection, went on to become chief of the Pasadena Fire Department and one of the few blacks ever elected president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Another upside of the integration aftermath, was that it reminded everyone of the fact that traditions die hard in the fire service. That the more than half-a-century of segregation tradition was broken in the relatively short period of time it was and without creating permanent rifts in the department, testifies to the resilience of the LAFD and its members.
The hard and bitter lessons learned during the integration period surely had a helpful impact upon the entrance of women and other minorities into the uniformed ranks of the LAFD.
Follow this link to the LA web site, http://www.lafire.com/index.html
All of the above cities had black fire companies with Los Angeles and Denver having a museum with memorabilia from the companies along with photos. Logistics and financial considerations prevented including photos and text was not available for these companies.
Chicago did however have one item of interest gleaned from other sources. David Lewis furnished information that the first fire pole was placed in use by the only black fire company in Chicago. This being third party information leaves it open for debate but the the information is as near factual as possible with the resources available.
Engine 21 is reputed to be the first black fire company in Chicago. This company had an engineer and a captain who were Caucasian and six black firefighters. The equipment manned by these men were a hose reel and a steam engine. A photo exists that shows the men and their equipment in front of the station. The time the photo was taken was 1874. If that be true, the station and equipment were destroyed in the "Second Great Chicago Fire." This fire occurred on July 14, 1874 and wiped out a large part of what was left of Chicago known as Black Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire started around 9:00 PM on a Sunday evening October 8th, 1871. Destroyed were 18,000 building which comprised about two thirds of the property value of the city. The lose of life was between two and three hundred. So it is a wonder with two great fires so close together that Chicago ever rebuilt.
Some time in the early years of Station 21 the men working there found that they could descend from the hay loft to the first floor by sliding down one of the support poles.
Captain Kenyon took note of this and expanded on the idea. Taking a wooden pole and sanding it smooth then working oil into the surface he had designed the first fire pole to be placed in service. He took the idea to his superiors and requested permission to cut a hole in the floor of the bunk room and install this pole. Permission was granted on condition that he repair the hole if the experiment failed. It did not fail and was soon replaced with the familiar brass pole.
Ohio Historical Society
Some of the fascinating old newspaper articles can give us a real glimpse of the way things were in a bygone era. The Ohio Historical Society has copied some of the items on their web site <http://www.ohiohistory.org/africanam/> you are invited to visit the site and draw your own conclusions. The items of interest to this site relate to discussions of black firemen and may be found by searching for firemen or fireman.
Cleveland Gazette: 12/06/1884
Apparently these are letters to the paper involving the appointment of colored firemen. The first letter must have appeared in the Leader on November 3, 1884 by Mr. Jonas Christopher who had taken exception to an earlier letter of October 27 by the writer. The discussion is over drawing a color line by assigning colored firemen to one station instead of integrating them in the ranks.
An item is quoted from another paper the Conservator of November29.
"The Cleveland Gazette in reference to its stand on the color question in the department of that city, made a good point. It says that the true question is not whether they shall have colored men in the fire department or not. They have this already, but whether these colored men shall form one company. Upon such a question its position is right. We ought not to ask for a color line. We get it too much without asking. If colored men can become members of the Cleveland fire department, and serve without reference to their color, by all means let them do it. Editor Smith is right. Success to him.
There is little doubt that there were black firefighters in Cleveland in 1884.
The Cleveland Advocate 06/17/1916
A Physically perfect man
Denver Col.---A perfect man physically has been found by the civil service commission.
Secretary Chas. Corchran announced that George W. Brooks, a provisional fireman, who took
the examination for regular fireman a few days ago, received a grading of 100 per cent from
Dr. Williams B. Newhall, examiner for the city, on medical test. Brooks is a Negro from
Galveston, Tex., formerly a clerk in the quartermasters department of the United States
Army. He passed 94.4 percent on strength tests, and with a little practice on exercises
to which he was not accustomed it is believed he could pass 100 per cent on this test.
He also received 100 per cent on spelling, 100 on arithmetic and 100 on memory test,
his total rating for mental tests being 83. In this he passed fourth among the applicants. Brooks is 26 years old, 5 feet 9.2 inches in height, and weighs 166 pounds. He is
married and lives at 2530 Franklin Street.
Yet a third item of interest:
Cleveland Gazette 09/29/1888
Chicagos Colored Firemen.
The fire department of Chicago consists of forty-three engines, ten hook and ladder companies,
and ten battalions. In the very front is colored engine company No. 21, organized December 21,
1872, with nine men. The headquarters of the company consist of two floors. Up-stairs is the
bunk room their sleeping apartments, sitting-room, bath-room, etc. The floors are nicely
carpeted, the walls are ornamented with pictures and the rooms are lighted by gas and
are models of neatness and order. The lower floor contains the engine, hose cart, and horses, etc.
The present members of the company are Captain, J.L. Kenyon; engineer, W.G. Price;
pipemen, K.T. Caesar, C. Scott, J.H. Jackson, J.E. Porter; driver of engine, S. Payne,
driver of cart, M. Ward; lieutenant, A. Makens. Of these the first two receive $108. and
others $90 a month. Thus we have some documentation of the famous engine company No. 21.
The above information is reprinted with the permission of the Ohio Historical Society.
It may seem odd to include the Coast Guard in any firefighting history but there is a parallel. Both services are involved in rescue. One of the forerunners of todays Coast Guard was the Rescue Service manning Life Saving Stations.
One of the outstanding Life Saving Stations of history is the Pea Island Station which was manned by an all black crew. This station was located along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A stretch of coast line known as the grave yard of the Atlantic due to the great lose of life from ship wrecks. The cold Northern waters meet with the Gulf stream not far off shore causing a turbulence even in the best of weather. The shoals are constantly moving and shifting making navigation treacherous even today. It was in these conditions that the Pea Island crew served with dedication and ability. The annals of the Coast Guard relate several tales of heroism by these men.
Born a free black, in 1842, Raymond Etheridge fished the waters along the coast of North Carolina until the War Between the States. He served for a time in the Army of the Union as a Sergeant. After the war he returned to Roanoke Island and continued his fishing until 1877. He then signed on as a surfman with the integrated Life Saving Service and was sixth surfman of a crew of seven at station 16. Station 17 was built in 1878 and first manned by a white crew but after only a short time were found to be incompetent and were discharged being replaced in 1880 by Raymond Etheridge as Station Keeper and an all black crew. Some of the men who served under him were Benjamin Bowser, Lewis Wescott, Dorman Pugh, Stanley Wise, Theodore Meekins and William Irving. All of these involved in one of the most heroic rescues in the history of the service.
The three masted schooner E.S. Newman sailed out of Providence, Rhode Island in early October 1896 with a planned destination of Norfolk, Virginia. Captain S.A. Gardiner had decided to bring his wife and young son along with him on the trip. One hundred miles from Norfolk a hurricane ripped the sails from their mast as huge waves threatened to swamp the ship. Without sail the ship and its family of three along with a crew of six faced certain disaster. The storm pushed the ship further and further south until it was finally beached near the Pea Island Station. The storm was so violent and the surf so high that the beach patrol had been suspended and a watchman posted in the lookout tower. The wind driven rain was beating against the windows of the tower in sheets as Theodore Meekins kept a visual.
The 393 ton schooner was being battered to pieces in pounding surf as Capt. Gardiner fired a flare at 7 PM on October 11th a desperate attempt to summon aid. Feeling sure that his signal had not been seen he fire a second. The first had only been a flicker that caught the attention of Meekins as he peered into the driving rain.
He alerted the rest of the crew and they set out in search of the source of the signal struggling with their heavy equipment in the deep sand and water. When they arrived at the wreck they found that they were unable to effect a normal rescue as there was no way to rig the breeches buoy. The only option was to send men into the raging surf towing a line and hoping they could reach the ship. Working in pairs the men took turns challenging the wind and water and each time returning to shore with a victim. The operation covered a span of six hours but all hands were saved. They had carried out the rescue with the motto in mind that "You have to go out. You dont have to come back."
It would be several years before the Life Saving Service was combined with the Revenue Cutter service to form the Coast Guard. If the reader finds a yearning to learn more about the contribution of black in the Coast Guard look to the Revenue Cutters of the late 1800s for Captain Mike "Hell Roaring" Healey the hero of the Bearing Sea.
The grandson of a rescuer and the grandson of rescuee meet Oct. 11 in Manteo, NC during a ceremony to commemorate Life-saving Station Pea Island, N.C.'s 100-year-old rescue of the crew of the E.S. Newman. Capt. Dwight Meekins (left), of Maintenance and Logistics Command Atlantic, Portsmouth, V. is the grandson of Pea Island Surfman Theodore Meekins. Fairfield, Conn. Fire Chief Daniel Grandiner, is the grandson of E.S. Newman skipper Sylvester Grandiner. Courtesy of Kay Larson USCG
As one of the more progressive cities as far as race relations are concerned the Camden Fire Department was one of the earlier cities to employ black fire fighters.
Six black fire fighters were appointed in 1920 and there may have been others even earlier in the days of the volunteers. Though these men were kept segregated for a number of years they established themselves as dedicated firefighters. Theodore L. Primas was appointed as a firefighter in 1947 and through hard work rose through the ranks to become the first black chief of the Camden Fire Department.
Contributed by Greg Bailey
According to "Fire Service of Topeka, The Early Years" by Oscar K. Swayze, the "City's All-Black Fire Station Proved Successful Experiment". Mr. Swayze went on to write... No. 3 fire station, built in 1882, was the first in Kansas and may have been the first in the United States to be manned entirely by Blacks. Their work at fires has proven them to be capable fire-fighters, although George O. Wilmarth, Topeka's first Chief, before the station was established, had doubted the wisdom of having an all-Black station. He changed his mind later when he saw them in action.
The station, located at 312 SE Jefferson, now is the oldest in Topeka. The companies at Headquarters and No. 1 stations were established when Topeka was younger but both have been since relocated at least three times. The city purchased two lots in the 300 block on Jefferson for $1,000 (one-thousand dollars) and spent an additional $3,384 (three-thousand, three hundred, eighty-four dollars) to build a one-story building. The station went into service September 11, 1882, with four full paid firemen on the job. Despite its small fire-fighting force, it was a two-company station and it has remained so since. It originally had a hose cart and a ladder truck. In 1886, the city council voted to add a second story at a cost of
$3,296.77 (three-thousand, two hundred, ninety-six dollars and seventy-seven cents) and the work was completed June 6, 1887. The same building has been used ever since. It used to be an impressive sight before the age of motors to see three big Grey horses pulling the hook and ladder truck to a fire. The thrill of watching the three big Greys was blamed for one arson case years ago. A youth admitted that he set fire to a barn just to see the horses pull the hook and ladder truck. The barn fire gained too much head-way before an alarm was turned in and five other barns were damaged before the firemen could extinguish the fire.
Retired Fire Chief Joe Douglas Jr. joined the Topeka Fire Department (station No. 3) on October 15, 1950. He was appointed Chief of the Topeka Fire Department by Mayor Douglas Wright on September 1, 1983. His appointment as Chief had to be ratified by the Topeka City Commission.
An article published by Mike Hall of the Capital-Journal (the City's official newspaper) said that " Many Happy Douglas to be New Fire Chief", Mr. Hall went on to write... Mayor Doug Wright made at least two groups happy with his selection of Joe Douglas Jr. as Fire Chief. The firefighters' union is happy, so are the Concerned Citizens for Equality and justice in City Hall. "One of Joe's attributes which I consider to be very important in making this selection is his commitment to the Topeka community, " Wright said. "Joe is a native Topekan and has been very active in the community throughout his life."
Chief Douglas was the first and to date, only Black Fire Chief in Topeka Fire Department history.
Though this article does not meet the criteria except for Molly Williams space is given here.
[Note: This material was gathered by the staff of Women in the Fire Service between 1992 and 1999. Some of the statistics have been changed to reflect updated information; otherwise, numbers given are from 1992. A longer version of this article is available on the WFS web site http://www.wfsi.org/BlackWomen.html .
The first woman firefighter we know of was African-American. Held under slavery by a New York City firefighter, Molly Williams worked on Oceanus Company No. 11 in the 1780's.
From that bittersweet beginning, it was to be many years before free African-American women began to create their legacy within the U.S. fire service. As many as 500 Black women now work as career firefighters and officers in the United States, along with an unknown number of counterparts in the volunteer ranks. The history of these pioneers is fragmentary, and we hope this brief listing of some of the names that are known will serve as inspiration for the collection of more comprehensive histories.
A chronology of the earliest Black women career firefighters
In June of 1976, a Black woman named Toni McIntosh was hired by the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fire Department. She was probably the first African-American woman to become a career firefighter. She was also the only female firefighter on the PFD for more than eleven years.
Carolyn Mitchell in Kansas City, Missouri, hired in January of 1977, was another early African-American female career firefighter. In an interview for an article in Ebony magazine in 1988, she reported some of the obstacles she had faced. "They tried to make it as hard as possible...They'd isolate me, wouldn't talk to me, would make up special rules for me..." Mitchell now holds the rank of captain and receives strong praise from her co-workers on KCFD.
Several other Black women were hired in 1977, including Harriett Saunders and Theresa Smith, two of the first three women firefighters in Detroit. Detroit now has more than 20 African-American women firefighters, including District Chief Charlene Graham, promoted in 1996.
The District of Columbia Fire Department employs more than fifty Black female firefighters, and an even larger number in EMS. Beatrice Rudder, hired in the first group of women in 1977, later became a sergeant, the first woman to be promoted in the DCFD.
Firefighter Liz Summers was one of seven Black women who joined the Atlanta Fire Bureau in 1978; she "completed her training at the very top of her class."
Also in 1978, Freda Bailey-Murray was hired by the Rockford, Illinois, Fire Department, along with four other women. Bailey-Murray later became the first woman of color to serve as President of the Board of Trustees of the Women in the Fire Service.
In June of 1979, Greenville, Mississippi hired the first Black woman firefighter in the state, Laverne Sing. The department now has six women, all Black, on the 88-person force. Sing and another woman, both lieutenants at the time, were promoted to captain in the fall of 1990.
Also in the summer of 1979, the first Black woman firefighter, Wanda Akbar (now Wanda Butler), was hired in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 1980, Christine Richie-Myers was one of first two women hired by the Oakland, California, Fire Department. She was promoted to Inspector in 1983, and later to lieutenant. The Oakland Fire Department currently employs more than 15 Black women.
The Seattle Fire Department had an aggressive women's hiring program for several years beginning in the late 1970's, but it was not until 1980 that the first African-American woman firefighter, Janet Beal, was hired. Beal was promoted to lieutenant in 1996.
Among the New York City Fire Department's first women firefighters hired in 1982 were a number of Black women, most of whom who are still on the job eighteen years later. Several have received unit citations for their work in the field, and one, Katrina Cannon, served as president of the New York women's organization, United Women Firefighters.
The Toledo Fire Department has employed Black women firefighters since its first women were hired in 1983. Out of 30 women now on the job, at least ten are Black. Firefighters Jennifer Wilson and Geraldine McCalland, along with Lieutenant Greg Fizer and Charles E. Anderson, in 1989 formed the first all-Black crew in Toledo Fire Department history.
Notable Black women firefighters in recent years
On July 14th, 1988, Chicago firefighter Phyllis Earl was seriously injured when she was pinned between two fire department vehicles. She suffered numerous crushing injuries, and even went into cardiac arrest. Her injuries resulted in the loss of her spleen, a kidney, and one lung; she later received a transplanted kidney donated by her sister. Co-worker Marilyn Schriner said at the time, "I felt that if anyone could pull through such an accident, Phyllis could... She is a remarkable, determined woman." Earl's extensive injuries forced her to retire from firefighting.
A Black woman named Jackie Jenkins is a firefighter/paramedic for the Kennedy Space Center Fire Department. Jenkins started out on the Cocoa Fire Department in her home town in about 1987; she later went to the Space Center and became the first Black woman captain in the state - and probably in the country - in less than a year. She was the first woman in Florida to win the "Outstanding Young Firefighter of the Year" award from the Florida Jaycees.
In 1984, Cecelia O. Salters (now Cecelia Owens-Cox) was the first woman to be assigned to a New York City truck company. (It is rare for women to be assigned to truck companies in the FDNY on a permanent basis.) Cecelia married co-worker André Cox in 1990: the couple were the first FDNY firefighters from the same firehouse to marry.
African-American women fire officers
Jacqueline Jones is the only woman on the Newark, New Jersey, Fire Department. Hired in 1982, she was promoted to captain in 1989. At her promotion ceremony, the mayor of Newark said, "It is a privilege to recognize our first female fire captain... She has displayed academic excellence and a tremendous commitment to the community by putting her life on the line to save others."
The first woman to hold the rank of division chief on the Detroit Fire Department was an African-American woman, Charlene Graham. Graham is a 20-year veteran of the department and heads its Division of Research and Development. Several other Black women have been promoted to chief-level positions in recent years, including Debra Pryor, Assistant Chief of the Berkeley, California, Fire Department; Pat Dyas, Battalion Chief in Shreveport, Louisiana; Battalion Chiefs Liz Summers (mentioned earlier) and Rosemary Cloud in Atlanta; and Major Cynthia Brooks (equivalent to assistant chief) of the Louisville, Kentucky, Fire Department.
Supporting Black women firefighters
The International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters has national, regional, and chapter "Black Women in the Fire Service" committees to support women who are IABPFF members in addressing their issues within the organization. The committees' duties include increasing the number of women applicants to fire departments, investigating local problems women encounter on the job and enlisting community support for the women, and determining the effect that training, or lack of training, has on women. The president of the national committee is Captain Claudia Stevenson of the St. Louis Fire Department.
Black women in volunteer firefighting
Information on volunteer firefighters is much sketchier and more difficult to retrieve. By one estimate, there may be as many as 2,000 Black female volunteer and paid-on-call firefighters in the U.S.
The historic self-governing Black town of Eatonville, Florida, has had an all-Black fire department for decades, as well as one of the first Black fire chiefs in the country. Orlando firefighter Deborah Crawley began as a volunteer on Eatonville before entering the career service.
The Belvedere, Delaware, Fire Department is another example of an all-Black volunteer force that includes several women. Similarly, the Dobbins Heights Volunteer Fire Department in Hamlet, North Carolina, has four women firefighters, including one captain. Some Black colleges, such as Central State University in Ohio, have volunteer fire departments that have included women for many years. There are certainly many more African-American women who serve as volunteer firefighters, whose numbers are difficult to count and whose names remain unknown except to those who work with them.
The number of African-American women firefighters grows every year. With the increased visibility of those currently on the job, awareness will continue to grow among young Black women that firefighting and rescue work are fields that offer them great opportunities and rewards.
[This article could not have been written without the generous assistance of many people. Thanks to Mr. Romeo Spaulding, Brenda Brooks, Freda Bailey-Murray, Crystal Golden, Sheila Hopper, Christine Richie-Myers, Chief Ernest Cannon, Marilyn Schriner, Pauline Kinnebrew, Firefighter Walz, and the Greenville Fire Department, for sharing the information that made this chronology possible. Numerous articles from Smoke (the former IABPFF journal), the article on women firefighters from the March 1988 issue of Ebony, and Robert Hemenway's biography of Zora Neale Hurston were also used as resources.]
The material above was provided by Women in the Fire Service, Inc. Appropriate credit to its source is appreciated. We are also grateful for updates and new information: e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2023 by Michael J. Legeros