LAFIRE.COM


The Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

History of the Black Firemen


The Segregated Years

October 1897 to September 1956

Roster of the Black Firemen
1897 to 1956

c


Call Fireman Sam Haskins


Engine Company No. 4

Call Fireman Sam Haskins is the earliest known black man to work on the Los Angeles Fire Department.  Born a slave in Virginia, Haskins came to Los Angeles sometime in 1880.  In 1892 Haskins worked as a "Call Fireman", a paid position that was part time, filling in for members off sick or on vacation.  Most call firemen eventually filled  a permanent position when one became available.  On November 19, 1895 an alarm came into Engine Company No. 2 located at 2127 East First Street.  The Engine Company responded, the hose wagon leading the way, the steam engine following.  Sam Haskins climbed on the rear tailboard of the engine alongside of the engineer.  Hitting rough pavement on North Main Street, Haskins lost his balance and fell forward into the large wheel on the left side of the boiler.  He was fatally crushed and died a short time later at the Engine House.  Sam Haskins was a well liked person around town and had many friends.  He was the first member of the department to die in the line of duty and his funeral was attended by Chief Walter S. Moore, his assistant, Ed R. Smith and  Ira J. Francis, the electrician.  A large detail of thirty men from the fire department as well as members of the police department attended.  The cortege was headed by a band and Chief Moore delivered a grave side address.  
        
 The death of fireman Haskins prompted Councilman Ashman to direct the Fire Commission to organize an Engine Company to be composed of colored men.  A motion was put forward to the Fire Commission on November 26, 1895.


Shown seated on the Hose Jumper next to the man with the white shirt
sleeves, this is the only know picture of Call Fireman Sam Haskins.


 The Reference Source for this section is
"The LAFD Centennial 1886-1986"
 pages 92, 146-153 by Paul Ditzel.

Lieutenant 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.

bright_1900_lafdphotoalbun_2.gif (20477 bytes)
George W. Bright
1900

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
1900

Prior to segregation Hoseman Glenn was assigned to Engine Company No. 4

Chemical Company No. 1

Chemical Company No. 1
137 S. Loma Dr.
Circa 1902

Equipment--One Champion Chemical Engine,
double tank, each 50-gallon capacity, and 200 feet of chemical hose


                                              Hose 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. 


Hose Company No. 4
1908


Source: USC Library Collection
Circa 1910


Source: The African-American Firefighter Museum

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.  


                                            Engine Company No. 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.


Engine Company 30 and Truck Company 30
1401 S. Central Avenue
July 31, 1939

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.

                                                  
                                                Fire Station No. 14

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.


Fire Station No. 14
3401 S. Central Avenue

                                                          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.

                                                 
                                                 Chief Alderson

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.  

                                          July, 1953- Norris Paulson
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.


                                        
                                         August 17, 1953- NAACP

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.

                                                 October 8, 1953
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.

071155_mirror_cartoon.gif (39701 bytes)

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

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.

                                             December 1954
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 Retires

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.

                                                 September 1956
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.

 

FIREMEN STORIES

John C. Powell, Captain 
Retired, L.A.F.D.

THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE, 
October 1966

Pasadena Dedicates New Fire Station, 
James H. Stern

THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE, 
February 1991

ARTICLES

Do we have Liberty and Justus
in the United States
By Arneth L. Hartsfield, 
THE FIREMEN'S GRAPE VINE, 
September 1942

L.A. Honors Black Firefighters' History
L.A. Times, 
December 13, 1997


RELATED WEB SITES;


African-American Firefighter Museum

History of Black Firefighters

 


LAFIRE.COM
Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.