Firefighters of the past to the present-day gathered May 30 at the African American Firefighter Museum (old Engine No. 30) luncheon at 14th Street and Central Avenue to pay tribute to the men who opened the door for them nearly 60 years ago.

There are seven remaining Black firemen who were hired by the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) during the segregated years from 1897-1956–Rey Lopez, Reggie Ballard, Arnett Hartsfield, Charles Anderson, Wince King, Roger Duncan and Wally Decuir (hospitalized the day before the luncheon). A few had canes, one had a walker, another was battling Alzheimer’s disease, while others simply sat proudly reminiscing with old friends and explaining to the succeeding generation what it took to simultaneously fight fires and racism.

“This is an opportunity to recognize the foundation of the LAFD,” said retired firefighter Ron Jackson. “There are only a few of these men left . . . the ones who came before us so that we could prosper. We don’t want their efforts back then to be in vain. When I was on the department, we tried everyday to maintain their high standards of courage, integrity and professionalism.”
In 1954 the LAFD had 2,500 White firefighters and 74 Black. The previous year, Chief Engineer John Alderson said, “The chief engineer’s responsibility is not to engage in any social experimentation,” even though Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson had directed a fact-finding committee of LAFD personnel to ” . . . break up the two Negro fire stations (Nos. 14 and 30 on Central Avenue), and if the chief refuses or fails to comply, replace him.”

Prior to integration, if a Black firefighter had to spend the night at another White-only station, he had to bring his boots, equipment, bedding, and toiletries, food (even silverware and dinnerware) and not use anything at that station besides ride on the truck. Black firefighters were allowed only along Central Avenue at Engine No. 30, Engine No. 10 and at Engine No. 21 in South Los Angeles.

Charles Anderson organized the luncheon, quipping: “I wanted to see the guys before a funeral.” He said his generation could not “look that far” into the future in predicting the social gains the department would make. “After the war, people started coming on,” Anderson said. “We knew [desegregation] was coming, so we in a way helped expedite today’s fireman. Poulson ordered integration ASAP, and Alderson didn’t like it so he quit. That directive made the department much more modern and progressive.”

Alderson retired in late 1955, but there remained overwhelming resistance to integration, particularly in the form of hazing. Black and White firemen who supported integration were transferred to so-called “punishment” or “hate houses” in South L.A. Black firefighters endured the full brunt of blatant and covert humiliations and were rarely promoted. This compelled the Stentorians, an organization of Black firefighters formed during the integration period, to mount round-the-clock patrols of the Black firefighters at Station No. 10.

“Yes, these men paved the way for us, and we took it further,” said retired firefighter Robert Jackson, who said the attitude at headquarters when he started was: “‘…we have to hire you, but we don’t have to keep you.’ “Our bond was strong,” Jackson winked while greeting an old comrade, “but not as strong as theirs. We wouldn’t be here if it were not for them.”

The “we” he spoke of includes LAFD Chief Brian Cummings, L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby and former LAFD chiefs Douglas Barry and Millage Peaks. Jim Shern in 1968 became the department’s first battalion chief, and all local Black firefighters followed in the footsteps of Sam Haskins who, in 1892, worked part time as a “Call Fireman” (filling in during an absence) and was the earliest known Black man to work for the LAFD. He died enroute to a call in November 1895. Shortly after Haskins’ death, the Fire Commission organized the first all-Black engine company and in 1897, Lt. George Bright became the first African American hired full-time by the LAFD.

Jim Hill, a retired deputy chief, recalled the difficulty African Americans endured in the department in the early 1970s, and points toward what he calls “The Magnificent Seven” who opened the doors for Black firefighters.

“They made tremendous sacrifices,” Hill said. “These men were never promoted no matter how good they were. They were the trailblazers. I never thought I would become a battalion chief. A guy told me one day, ‘You guys won’t have a Black deputy chief until the year 2000.’ I made deputy chief in 1997.” Hill added that the story of the seven veterans should be taught to young people. “There is a lesson here to be taught,” he said. “Young people should know this story because [their] character and integrity knocked down the walls of segregation.”

Brent Burton, a firefighter with L.A. County, and director of the museum, said the morning was a special event for him. “This means everything,” Burton said while helping to grill the barbecue lunch. “We exist because of them. We must pay homage and respect to what they did.” Burton said the museum is seeking funding for outreach among elementary and middle-school students in South L.A. “We get calls for tours, and that is a positive for history. The neighborhood may have changed demographically, but the lessons of history remain the same.”

The same lesson of history was not lost on D’Lisa Davies. She is one of only seven African American women in the department and said the honorees “opened the doors” not just for Black firefighters, but for Black Los Angeles as well. “I’m honored to participate in this ceremony,” said Davies, a 28-year veteran. “It’s ridiculous that we have only seven Black women on the department, but we wouldn’t be here if not for persons like Mr. Hartsfield (nicknamed the “Eternal Rookie”) who had to endure such discrimination that the ordinary person would quit. These men were not ordinary.”