Newly minted Assistant Chief Kwame Cooper had much to smile about at his 8 a.m. badge ceremony on Dec. 1 in the Fire Commission Room in City Hall East. He was making history of sorts, as one of three current assistant chiefs and only the seventh Black fireman so honored in the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The room was full of family, friends, peers and department brass. Cooper’s wife Myrna, son Malik, and sister, Akosua Hobert, sat proudly up front. Arnett Hartsfield, 93, every local Black firefighter’s hero, sat quietly, soaking in more of the history that he never guessed he would live to see. And Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby was there to pay his respects.

Chief Brian Cummings, who notified Cooper the day before Thanksgiving that he was being promoted, introduced him. Other brass stepped forward to laud him as well.

As intoxicating as the ceremony might have been for Cooper, he didn’t have much time to savor the moment.

Afterwards, he and other firefighters had to rush back to work. With winds gusting up to 85 miles an hour in some locations, trees were toppled, power lines were felled and there was a rash of fires.

“Yesterday might have been the busiest day in the fire department,” Cooper said the following day. “We have a normal average of about 1,200 emergency incidents a day. Yesterday, it was pushing 2,500 within a 24-hour period.”

Born in Harlem and raised in Harlem and the South Bronx, Cooper had a well-developed commitment to social and political justice before he arrived in Los Angeles at age 20. He had come west for a visit at the invitation of his sister and, intrigued by the politics and opportunities, decided to stay. After two years, he joined the fire department.

“I love L.A. There is a different type of political movement here and, opportunity-wise, I found it very easy to find jobs.”

His enthusiasm didn’t extend to the fire department, however, and he initially resisted the idea of applying for a position.

“A good friend and I worked together for Pacific Bell, and he got interested in working for the fire department,” Cooper said. “The department was under a consent decree and was putting on a huge recruitment drive to increase the minorities. I really wasn’t interested. I was working for PacBell making $500 a week, but the fire department paid $1,000.”

Given the difference in pay, it made sense to at least investigate. Still, Cooper skipped out on the initial written test because it fell on his birthday, June 21. But his friend took the test and encouraged him to do the same, which he did and passed. Two months later he passed the background test.

With his involvement in basketball and martial arts, Cooper said he adapted to the training very easily, even though he found the academy “very challenging mentally, rigorous physically and requiring a lot of courage, integrity and discipline.” But he harbored a secret. “In the back of my head I was afraid of heights,” he said. A part of the training referred to as “jump for your job” required trainees to jump from a three- or four-story building into a net. It was either jump or go home. Cooper, of course, jumped.

“I excelled. I loved it,” Cooper said. “I learned quickly that it was part of my destiny.”

Still, it was clear there was a history of racism in the department, and some vestiges still existed.

“It was really kind of interesting because I didn’t know the history. After my first day in the drill, the Stentorians, an organization of Black fighters founded by Hartsfield and about 30 others in 1954, invited him and other Black rookies to a meeting.

“It was sometime shortly after that that I met Mr. Hartsfield,” said Cooper. He read Hartsfield’s book, “Ole Stentorians,” a chronology of Blacks in the fire department. He learned about the hardships that Hartsfield and other Black firefighters had endured–being relegated to one of two Black-only fire stations on Central Avenue, denied promotions, looked down on by White firefighters, unable to eat with White firefighters, even after the department was integrated.

In spite of a few negatives, Cooper has great respect for the department.

“It is absolutely a phenomenal organization,” he said. “Being able to show up on a fire truck in the Black community and being looked at as a hero was really intoxicating, and it is a feeling that you get from serving that nothing else can compensate you for.”

Cooper said he and Chief Cummings came into the department around the same time, but became closer after they both promoted to battalion chief. “I was actually closer to his father, Louis Cummings Jr., who was one of the old Stentorians and one of my mentors,” said Cooper.

Said Cummings, who himself was recently installed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as interim chief: “Assistant Chief Kwame Cooper has been a member of the Los Angeles Fire Department for 31 years and has brought great insight to the organization. I have very high expectations of Chief Cooper to provide innovative ideas and leadership to the LAFD.”

What Cooper, 53, brings to the job is a resume of learning, involvement, service and a concern for others based on the “belief that all people deserve to have access to information and institutions that will help them live better and safer lives.”

A former president of the Stentorians (’90-’94), he has also served as fire safety education director of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters and is a consultant to the National Fire Protection Association’s Center for High Risk Outreach. His fire-safety work has taken him to such locations as the Caribbean, Central America, Portugal, South Africa, Ethiopia and Argentina, as well as various destinations throughout the U.S.

His background reflects numerous hours of training, most of which he said came from outside the fire department, as a result of his involvement with the Stentorians.

Aside from his family, no one expresses more pride in Cooper’s accomplishments than Hartsfield, dubbed “The Rookie” because in his 21 years in the department he never received a promotion. But in his off time, Hartsfield attended UCLA and law school at USC and became an attorney, all while being the “eternal rookie.”

The 93-year-old Hartsfield said he never believed he would live long enough to see Black chief, but has been blessed to see three Black chiefs in succession–Douglas Barry, Millage Peaks and now Cummings.

“They have paid me back many times for the abuse I took,” said Hartsfield. “The little bit of mistreatment I had made me appreciate the present department so much more. I owe more to them, especially to Kwame, for all the success they’ve had.”

The Stentorians have a saying that goes, “All I am I owe. I live eternally in red,” said Cooper.

What that means, he said, is that as a result of everything that I have, somebody else paid the price. It speaks to the love of serving community….