Contributions of African-Americans To South Carolina’s Fire Service

Contributions of African-Americans To South Carolina’s Fire Service

For the last several years, this writer has done a lot of reading about the history of South Carolina’s fire service, and I have tried to capture its relevance by putting to pen those stories from our past. While doing research for all of these features, I realized that very few documents are available or even draw attention to the tremendous contributions of those African-American firefighters who helped mold our State’s fire service into what we enjoy today.

In the next few pages, I wish to relate some of my findings as clearly and openly as possible to that portion of our history which has been overlooked and even forgotten. It is not this writer’s intent to depict facts in an offensive manner or to stir emotions of past biases or inequalities, but rather to bring to light the bountiful influence of our African-American brothers on fire service history.

You will note that this writer has relied heavily on information provided by the Sanborn Insurance Maps collected by the South Caroliniana Library as part of the University of South Carolina. These maps offer unbelievable documentation of over a century as a means to establish insurance costs for protecting towns and cities against the threat of fire. Additionally, and more importantly to the fire service, they provide a description of the firefighting equipment and manpower of each town and city in years gone by.

A number of random towns and cities in South Carolina are featured because of the emphasis placed on the role African-American firemen played in the evolution of fire protection across our great State.

 

ABBEVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
In 1906, the Town of Abbeville had a population of 4,800. The fire department consisted of two fire companies which operated a hose wagon, three hose reels, and one hook & ladder wagon…all hand-drawn. Additionally, the department had a membership of 15 white firemen and 50 colored. The colored company was led by a white foreman.

AIKEN
A survey taken in 1899 reveals the Town had a population of around 3,000 people. The fire department operated with three companies: one Engine Co. comprised of 15 white firemen, and two hose companies manned by 15 and 20 colored firemen, respectively. The department proudly utilized a hand-drawn Silsby 2nd Class steam engine.

ANDERSON
The fire department was organized in 1885 when the growing town bought a used steamer from the City of Charleston. The population was around 2,500 residents. The department signed up 57 volunteers among whom was a colored company who manned the hook & ladder truck. The volunteers utilized one steam engine, a hand-drawn engine, three hose carts, one hook & ladder truck with twenty leather fire buckets.

BEAUFORT
According to records, in 1899, the Town of Beaufort had a population of 5,500, and the department operated with three companies…a white engine company with 30 volunteers, a colored engine company with 30 firemen, and a hook & ladder company with 30 colored firemen.
BLACKVILLE
Back in 1912, this booming town had a population nearing 2,000 citizens. The fire department consisted of two companies, one white and one colored having 13 men each. The department used two mules to pull a Howe 40 horsepower gasoline pumper, a hook & ladder truck (wagon), and a hand-drawn hose reel.

CAMDEN
In 1884, the town had a population of about 1,800. The fire department ran with one steam engine, two hand engines, two hose reels, and one hook & ladder company. Mention is made the department also a “bucket” company. Reference is later made there were two companies of firemen, one we are told was comprised of colored firemen.

CHARLESTON
According research by fire department historian, Mike Legeros, “the first hand engine company was formed in 1801. Other volunteer companies followed and organized in the decades prior to the Civil War. They operated hand engines, as did slaves who manned ‘ward engines’, owned by the city.”

Historically, the citizens of Charleston trusted the free African-American community, even employing them as firefighters in 1862. According to Bernard E. Powers in his book, African-Americans in 19th Century Charleston, “Charleston included a sizable free black population. In 1860, they numbered more than 3,000 and constituted about one third of all free blacks in the state. Entry into this group occurred when slaves purchased their freedom or were otherwise emancipated by their owners; others migrated to Charleston and some were emancipated for meritorious service.” Mr. Powers goes on, “as an example of the latter, the slave that climbed to the top of St. Michael’s Church to extinguish a fire was emancipated as a result.”

While the date of this fire or its cause is unknown, this writer did find that during the Federal bombardment of the city in 1865, a shell burst near the chancel, and the base of the pulpit still bears the scar. Also, it was found that in 1863, Union troops on Morris Island bombarded the city on a regular bases with rifle cannon that could easily hit the “glaring target that St. Michael’s made.”

In an article by an unknown author, entitled A Charleston Love Story – Black Charleston, it was found that “Lt. Colonel Bennett occupied the city in February 1865, and quickly used his 21st United States Colored Regiment, other black troops, and local African-Americans whom he engaged to put out the many fires burning in the city.”

A letter written by Charleston’s Chief Engineer, Moses Henry Nathan, to William Miles in 1859, “the Charleston Fire Department is comprised of eleven volunteer fire companies, ten ward engines (manned largely by African-American volunteers, both free and enslaved, under the direction of a handful of white supervisors), and one hook & ladder truck.”

The Charleston City Council minutes of January 9, 1872, reveals “the well-developed fire department comprised of eleven steam engines and two hook & ladder trucks staffed by over 800 white citizens and seven hand engines operated by 846 African-American men.”

Interestingly, “The Truck House” which was located on John Street operated with two hook & ladder, horse-drawn apparatus, all manned by African-American firemen. These companies later moved to the Cuming Street Station. The site of the Cuming Street Station was given by Corp. Damon G. Thomas in 1943. A marble tablet is affixed on the front of the station stating the purpose for the site was “for the erection of a fire station to be used by a Negro Company.”

CLINTON
In 1912, the Town had a population of 3,300 residents. The fire department consisted of two hose reels and one hook & ladder company, all having 12 men each…two white companies and one colored company utilizing all hand-drawn apparatus.

COLUMBIA
An article which appeared in Columbia’s The Daily Phoenix on April 11, 1875, highlights a “Colored Firemen’s Tournament”. The content says, “The colored firemen (Columbia) are making splendid headway in their proposed tournament in the first part of May—about the 3rd or 4th. They deserve all the help our citizens can give them toward success, as they have ever been ready, energetic and willing co-workers with the white companies in fighting the fiery element. They propose to invite several colored companies to participate with them in their festivities; and we are satisfied that the visitors will have to be at the top round of the ladder to experience and activity to surpass the Vigilant, Enterprise and Congaree.”

Historian Mike Legeros, in his research of the History of Black Firefighters, compiled a great deal of material from many cities across the country. One article written by Darrick Hart tells the story of the Columbia Fire Department and the role African-American firemen played in that city’s history. Rather than take bits and pieces from his research, this writer will quote his article in its entirety.

“The involvement of African-Americans in Columbia’s fire services can be traced back to the 1840’s. 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 the 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.”

Mr. Hart goes in further detail by saying, “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 firemen’s tournaments. During the ‘volunteer days’ fire departments from all around the state would come together to compete in firemen’s 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, and during the 1880’s 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 1870’s, the city had two black companies, the Vigilant Fire Company and the Enterprise Fire Company. In the 1850’s, 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 fifty 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 1860’s 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 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.”

Mr. Hart is very graphic in describing the next incident which 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 Mayor’s Court and released. One of the men arrested was John L. Simons. Simons was president of the Vigilant Fire Company and a board member of the city’s 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.”

As Mr. Hart writes, “Simons believed that he had been treated unjustly. He argued that as a member of 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 Mayor’s 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 our 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.”

“Columbia’s 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 horse-drawn apparatus were discontinued.”

DARLINGTON
In 1903, Darlington had a population of nearly 5,000 people. The fire department operated with two fire companies…one with 15 whites and one with 12 colored. The two companies ran with a Silsby steamer purchased from Charleston, one hook & ladder truck, three hose reels and one combination hose/chemical wagon. The department also owned two horses, one which became a champion in statewide tournaments.

GEORGETOWN
According to The Abbeville Messenger (April 27, 1886), the town had a population of 2,800, and the fire department operated four fire companies…2 white and 2 colored with a total of 202 firemen. In 1894, the Town utilized a steam engine, a hook & ladder truck, two hand-pumpers, four hose reels…all hand-drawn.

GREENVILLE
The budding City of Greenville had a population of 11,000 in 1893, and the fire department operated with four fire companies. The Palmetto Fire Company was manned by 70 colored men, and the Neptune Fire Company had 85 colored men. The other two white companies only had a total of 70 firemen.

FLORENCE
In 1898, the railroad town of Florence had a population of 5,000 residents. The fire department boasted of having 125 volunteer firemen and three paid men. They utilized three horses…2 for the steamer and 1 for the hose wagon. The department also had a hand-drawn hook & ladder truck and two hand engines. According to Vicki Suggs in her book, The Florence Fire Department Since 1800’s, the hook & ladder truck was purchased in 1874 and was named “The Rainey Hook & Ladder”. Retired Battalion Chief Suggs mentions, “It was said to have been organized by the black citizens, and was the first black company. This company was reported to have been named for Joseph H. Rainey, who was from Georgetown and was the first black elected to Congress after the Civil War.” Also, Chief Suggs found in her research that the black companies manned their apparatus with 15 members. Then in 1894, “The Pet Engine Company” was organized with 15 members, and indications are that this was an integrated fire company.

In 1882, two members of one of the black companies requested that a hand engine named, “Florence”, be turned over to them to operate. The engine was owned by the North Eastern Railroad, and after speaking with the president of the company, the matter was agreed on and another hand engine was added to Florence’s arsenal.

LAURENS
In 1912, the Town of Laurens had a population of nearly 6,500 people. The fire department operated with one white and one colored company of 20 men each. Together they utilized a Silsby steamer, a hose cart, and a hand reel. Only the steamer was horse-drawn.

MANNING
In 1912, the Manning Fire Department operated with two companies…one white and one colored manned by 12 volunteers each. Interestingly, an editorial which appeared in The Manning Times (June 9, 1889) addresses a big issue for this community. The editor states, “Several years ago the town purchased a hook & ladder truck, and a white company was organized. The company has long since gone to pieces.” The editor then asks the question, “Why not turn over the truck to a colored company? They would appreciate it, and in cases of fire would do valuable service. We suggest that the colored people organize a fire company, and we feel confident that the town will turn the truck over to them. Organize at once.”

NEWBERRY
The fire department was officially organized in April 1875 and operated with a hook & ladder truck which carried an assortment of ladders, tarps, forcible entry tools, and several Babcock fire extinguishers. The population of Newberry was just under 2,000 citizens. The department had a colored company which went by the name of The Eagles.

According to Mrs. Edith Greisser in an article in the Newberry Herald, Malcolm Lassane was the first black fireman hired by the City of Newberry. He became famous throughout the country because of his training of “Ole Joe”, the fire horse. At the height of “OleJoe’s” career in the fire service, he was deemed the fastest fire horse in South Carolina, and the fifth fastest in the nation. Fireman Lassane said “Ole Joe” could out-think his competition. Joe died on May 9, 1930, and Malcolm Lassane was given the honor of choosing where the fire horse would be buried. Lassane asked that his friend be buried beside the fire house which is now the Newberry Convention Center. Fireman Lassane was a big part of the fire department history of Newberry, this State and Nation.

ORANGEBURG
The fire department was organized around 1855 when “The Young America Fire Company” was established. In 1884, the town had a population of 2,000 people and operated a department with a steam
engine, a hand engine, and two hose reels. Later, in 1890, five hose carts were added to the force.

According to the November 10, 1897 edition of The Times and Democrat, there were four fire companies serving the city…The Young America, The Elliott Independent Hook & Ladder Company, The East End Reel Company, and The Phoenix Reel Company. The Phoenix Reel Company was a colored company which operated a hose reel having 300 ft. of cotton hose in good condition. The article states that the company has “a small reel house but no hall for meetings.”

ROCK HILL
In 1900 the city saw the population grow to 6,700 residents. And, the fire department had two fire companies…an engine company with 16 white firemen, and a hook & ladder company manned by 30 colored firemen. The department operated with two Silsby steam engines, two hose carts, and the hook & ladder truck…all drawn by hand.

SUMTER
In an article written for The Sumter Daily Item in 1985 by Mrs. Myrtis Osteen, the Sumter Fire Department was organized around 1870 as a result of a tragic fire near the railroad tracks which took the lives of a former slave woman and her three children. And, according to Sumter Historian, Sammy Way, there were three “all-black” fire companies serving the town in the early 1870’s…the Wide-Awakes, the Red Jackets, and the Eagle Blues.

 

Based on the limited demographic listings gleaned from a small sampling of towns and cities in South Carolina from “back in the day” (1800-1920), this writer feels confident in stating nearly half, if not over half, of all firefighters serving in our fire service were African-American. This statement will require a great deal more research, but that’s for another day.

While exploring the pages of historical records, I was curious to know who may have been the first African-American fire chief to be appointed in the United States. Again, North Carolina’s Mike Legeros chronicled some written material by Chuck Miligan who believes Patrick H. Raymond of the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Fire Department may have been the first in the country. Chief Raymond was born in 1831, joined the fire department in the early 1850’s, and was appointed Chief of that department on January 5, 1871.

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My interest was further deepened to know who may have been the first recorded female African-American firefighter and discovered the answer in the phenomenal book entitled Firefighters by The Fallen Firefighters’ Foundation (1993).  A chapter written by former Toledo (Ohio) Fire Chief (and former Ohio State Fire Marshal and Toledo Mayor), Michael P. Bell, explores many of the contributions of our African-American brothers (and sisters).  In his research, Chief Bell references a slave woman by the name of Molly Williams who gained some legendary distinction and popularity as a volunteer fireman in New York during the late 1700’s.  Chief Bell writes that Molly Williams was owned (bound) by a white New York fireman who served with the Oceanus Company No. 11.  Williams became famous during the Blizzard of 1818 when she helped pull an engine with “drag ropes” a very long distance in the blinding snow storm to fight a fire in the City.  A drawing of Molly Williams depicts her pulling a hand pumper in drifting snow while wearing a calico dress and checked apron.

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Another little-known fact is that Oprah Winfrey, the Emmy Award-Winning television talk show personality, actually first captured public attention in 1971 when she won the Nashville Fire Department’s “Miss Fire Prevention” title. She later went on to win the “Miss Tennessee” title and stepped in her initial job in broadcasting with Channel 5, WLAC, in Nashville.

A point of personal privilege…while working for the Office of State Fire Marshal in 1974, this writer was introduced and later became friends with the late Chief of Nashville’s Fire Prevention Bureau, Howard Boyd, who was responsible for recruiting Oprah Winfrey to enter the contest. In conversations at several national meetings, Chief Boyd always took great satisfaction about “providing Oprah her start in show business.”

 

So, just who were, and are, some of the many “trail blazers” who are deemed “history makers” drawn from the African-American community who have contributed to our state’s fire service? Research reveals there are many. For example, in my home town of Manning, the late Mr. James Wilson, Superintendent of Public Works (62 years) and volunteer fireman from the very early days of the 20th century, taught me more about hydraulics than any Oklahoma Red Book or IFSTA Training Manual. I recall his admonition on several occasions about wasting water and the importance of proper placement of hose streams. I can remember as a very young firefighter Mr. Wilson’s fascinating stories about his days as a youth helping the fire department locate cisterns installed around the town before our water system was expanded in the early 1920s. Day and night, when the alarm of fire was sounded, Mr. Wilson would rush to the water works station to set a fire in the giant boiler to build steam to run the pump, making sure the water tank was full of water then rush to the fire scene to help the firemen.

 

Robert Busby, Columbia Fire

Then there was a pioneering team in Columbia comprised of the late Assistant Fire Chief Claude Stewart and the late Deputy Chief Louis Williams. According to retired Columbia Chief John Jansen, “Chiefs Williams and Stewart were hired in 1953 and rose through the ranks and served until 1990 and 1991 respectively.” This writer remembers both men very fondly…friendly, great conversationalists, soft spoken but yet firm. In the 100th Anniversary book, Columbia Fire & Rescue Service 1804-2004, Chief Jansen and John Reich tell us that although the volunteer ranks included African-American firefighters between 1800 and 1903, “as far as we know, the City hired only six black drivers for the steamer horse teams.” The Columbia Fire Department became a paid department in 1903 and kept the African-American drivers on the rolls to handle and maintain the horses until 1916 when the fire department replaced their horse-drawn machines to motorized apparatus.

 

Columbia Fire

 

Also, our history would not be complete without mentioning the promotion of Aubrey Jenkins to Columbia’s top position as Chief of Department in 2011. Chief Jenkins worked his way up through the ranks and was chosen to this position after competing with a long list of applicants. The Columbia Fire Department has 570 career personnel, 130 volunteers, and operates out of 32 stations. Chief Jenkins has received many awards and takes great pride in helping to lead his department to an ISO Class 1 rating. Currently Chief Jenkins is serving as 3rd Vice President of the South Carolina State Fire Chiefs’ Association.

 

 

AC Raymond Lloyd, Charleston Fire

 

In the City of Charleston, there was another “Trail Blazer” by the name of Robert H. Mears. According to Assistant Fire Chief Raymond Lloyd (a sixth generation firefighter and historian himself), “Robert Mears entered the Charleston Fire Department around 1900 and was assigned to the Truck House on John Street. He worked his way up the ranks and was promoted to Captain. He was the first African-American Captain” to attain this rank and “retired in 1949 after 49 years and 9 months of service. He died on March 17, 1952, at the age of 78, and is buried in the Unity and Friendship Society Cemetery” in Charleston.

 

 

 

 

Over in rural Williamsburg County Chief Randy Swinton merits the designation of a pioneering leader in our fire service. Chief Swinton joined the Williamsburg Fire Department in 1991 as a volunteer and was promoted to Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal in 2003. He served in that position until 2009 when he became their Chief. The department protects an area of 818 sq. miles and operates out of 23 stations with 110 volunteer and career personnel of whom nearly 44% are African-American. In addition, the Chief serves on the state’s review panel supervising the helpful V-SAFE program for volunteer and combination departments. Chief Swinton summed up his philosophy about his leadership approach to running a large organization by saying, “I believe in putting God first. And, there are no colors in the fire service but one…and, that’s red.”

 

 

West Columbia Fire

 

During 2017 we continue to observe more African-American firefighters making their mark in our fire service. For instance, Marquis Soloman was appointed the first African-American Deputy Chief of the West Columbia Fire Department after getting his start with the City of Columbia Fire Department where he found a passion for special operations. Currently Chief Soloman serves as the Chairman of our State Association’s Finance and Audit Committee. A visit to his office reveals his drive for higher education as evidenced by the diplomas and certificates displayed on his wall.

 

 

Also, in the current class of the Leadership Institute sponsored by the South Carolina Firefighters’ Association are the first African-American participants…, Captain Shuan Gadsden of the North Charleston Fire Department, Assistant Engineer Tian Griffeth, and Captain Jon Jones of the West Columbia Fire Department. Jones became the first African-American to achieve the rank of Captain in West Columbia; Gadsden, a second generation firefighter, became the first African-American to be appointed Battalion Chief of the Isle of Palms Fire Department before joining the North Charleston Fire Department; and Tian Griffeth has served North Charleston since 2008 during which time he organized and coordinated, along with four other firefighters, the annual 9/11 Silent Walk across the Ravenel Bridge which draws thousands of participants and visitors to the Charleston area each year.

Rick Dunn, SCSFA

Some interesting and very revealing comments came out of a recent kitchen table conversation I shared with these three men. Captain Jon Jones said, “it’s gratifying to serve a cause greater than ourselves. The fire service offers a great opportunity for African-Americans, even with the challenges.” And, Captain Gadsden agreed that the fire service is “an excellent job for African-Americans. We have a sense of hard work…we have shown we can work not only with our hands but also with our hearts. I want to be a great example”. Tian Griffeth commented that he “doesn’t want to be seen as an exception. There is still a scary side of being an African-American in the fire service especially when you begin to push forward in your career. Be ready to experience some isolation from a few.” There is much more this writer learned from my conversation with these men. Perhaps in time I will pursue more of their experiences and observations to chronicle in greater detail the rich history of African-American firefighters.

However, before concluding this particular research project, it is my desire to offer a few of the possible reasons why there were significant numbers of African-American firefighters during the 1800s and early 1900s. Then, I wish to suggest the answer why a period of time passed in the 20th century when there were so few.

Initially we learned that slaves were often given permission by their owners to participate in local fire departments, possibly giving relief to the owners from an obligation to volunteer. Additionally, many freed slaves chose to serve as firemen out of a sense of duty to protect others. Secondly, slaves and freed African-Americans were accustomed to hard and dirty work, so firefighting was not a chore to be avoided. Thirdly, we know that African-Americans had a strong inner desire to belong and to contribute to make life more meaningful, and the institutions of family, church, and participation in the fire department filled an important need.

Captain Gadsden made an interesting comment about those early African-American firemen, and even those serving today, that “they possess(ed) a spirit deep inside of wanting to make a difference.”

So, why were there significantly fewer African-Americans serving in fire departments during the greater portion of the 20th century? Most likely the answer rests squarely on social dogma during a time when more and more departments became paid and competition for these jobs was high. Bias developed across the country and a resistance to allow African-Americans to come into the job because of their race was a common factor. As former Toledo Chief Bell said, segregation had a significant impact on firefighting…”everything depends on being given a chance and an opportunity to succeed. Dedication, courage, and a desire to help are the universal qualities all firefighters must bring to the job.”

Whether African-American, Asian, Hispanic, White, Male or Female, the fire service is changing for the better. To be sure there are obstacles yet to be addressed, but we’ve come a long way. The bias, discrimination and prejudice our pioneering brothers faced in years gone by are now being supplanted by acceptance and regard for the greater good.

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Ben Franklin, the “Father of Firefighting” in America, wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac over 280 years ago that “a good example is the best sermon.” In addition, Franklin wrote an essay entitled, “Brave Men at Fires” in which he said, “Neither cold, nor darkness will deter good people from hastening to the dreadful place to quench the flames. They do it not for the sake of reward or fame; but they have a reward in themselves, and they love one another.” If there is a take-away from this research, Ben Franklin summed it up.

I like what FDNY’s late Chaplain Father Mychal Judge said at a dedication of a firehouse the day before the World Trade Center attacks where he became the first fire department fatality on that fateful day. The Franciscan priest recited the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi… “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.”

The opportunity afforded this writer to plunge into the subject of African-American contributions to South Carolina’s fire service has truly been a rewarding and an eye-opening experience. This research only breaks the surface of a fascinating focus about which a great deal more must be explored to fully appreciate. I am forever grateful to those who helped and encouraged me with this research for I now have a much more profound admiration for those pioneers in the African-American community, past and present, who are the real heroes of this article.

 

 

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