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Arnett Hartsfield, deemed the “eternal rookie” of the Los Angeles Fire Department because he never got a promotion, died Oct. 31 in Los Angeles of natural causes. He was 96.

Services will be held Nov. 14 at 11 a.m.

Hartsfield, who worked as a Los Angeles firefighter from 1940 to 1961, was the 80th Black firefighter hired, and was among 83 other Blacks in the department when it integrated in 1955.

When Hartsfield joined the department, African Americans were not allowed to advance in rank, no matter how long they served nor what additional education and training they received.

“No matter what we did, we couldn’t promote,” Hartsfield once said. “I almost quit.” When the department finally became desegregated in 1955, Hartsfield remembered the “isolation and shame” he felt about serving in a department with such backward racial policies. One firefighter in particular refused to accept him.

“You’ve got all the advantages,” the firefighter told him. “You’ve got the NAACP. You’ve got the Urban League, and you’ve got the Supreme Court.”

Hartsfield countered: “I said, ‘Hold it, Bill. Tomorrow morning, when we get off duty, come with me down to headquarters. Tell them you’ve just discovered some Black blood in your family tree, and you won’t even have to prove it. You’ll have all of my ‘advantages.’

“You know, the next morning I couldn’t even find that dude,” Hartsfield remembered. “And he never bothered me again.”

Up until 1955, Los Angeles housed African Americans at only three locations: Engine No. 30 at 14th and Central Avenue, Engine No. 14 at 34th Street and Central Avenue, and Engine No. 51 (on 51st Street between Central and Hooper avenues).

Hartsfield remarked that the station numbers and addresses sometimes caused confusion for the pubic because, “Engine 30 was on 14th Street, and Engine 14 was on 34th Street.” Back then, Blacks were only allowed to eat, work and sleep at one of the three firehouses.

“If a call meant you had to spend the night at another station, you had to bring your own bedding and meals, sleep there and roll it up and take it back with you,” Hartsfield said during an interview in February 2012 while hosting visitors at the African American Firefighter Museum, which was the home of Engine 30.

“We worked alongside White firefighters—everything from structure fires, natural disasters, mountain fires—but we never shared quarters with them. Essentially, one Black replaced another Black on a shift. We had so many Black firefighters assigned to only three stations—and they all had the same rank. There was no promotion until someone died—maybe too stubborn to die,” Hartsfield smiled.

In spite of his perilous profession, Hartsfield once said that national laws of segregation may have been the reason why he lived into his 90s. Hartsfield entered the Army in 1942, serving as a lieutenant in the Pacific during World War II. He had been called into service after the attack on Pearl Harbor and entered with rank by virtue of ROTC classes at Manual Arts High School.

“If the Army had been integrated when I went in, I might have died at Normandy,” he said. “Whatever company a Black man was in would have been in the first wave. Not only that, I might have been shot in the back by a White enlisted man who resented my being a lieutenant.”

After the Army, Hartsfield [returned to the fire department and] complained about how little a Black firefighter made ($170 a month), remarking candidly that he was always pressed to save $100 each month to put in the department credit union. “We had five children. Every time I’d get $40, $50 or $60, something would happen.”

In his later years, Hartsfield would be able to draw three pensions “with interest,” he smiled, allowing him to deposit up to $5,000 in the same credit union each month.

Hartsfield was particularly fond of recalling the exploits of the many Black firefighters who came before him, some of whom died in the line of duty. One of these heroes was Sam Haskins, who in 1895, was the first African American firefighter to die in service. Haskins’ sacrifice was forgotten for more than a century and not included in the “line-of-duty” deaths until 2002, when the details of his death resurfaced.

One firefighter, Capt. William Hall, would be a mentor to Hartsfield: “Capt. Hall was a fine man. In 1925, the only reason he was passed over for promotion to battalion chief was because he was Black.”

Black family life in 1940s Los Angeles suffered under segregation laws, as did work life, Hartsfield said. “The average man with a family made about $14 per week, and you were glad to get it,” Hartsfield remembered. “Segregation here was economic. It was not quite as oppressive as it was in the South. Here, they just priced you out of everything. Banks would only loan for houses on the Eastside. Stores practically never allowed you credit. If you could get on with, say, Santa Fe Railroad as a porter; get on the police department, the fire department, the shipyards, the post office, or maybe you got a job at one of the big department stores on Central Avenue (e.g. Gold’s formerly at Washington Boulevard and Central. Avenue) or at Kunin Furniture (formerly at 46th Street and Central Avenue, you could make it. But it was hard for Blacks back then to make a way.”

Hartsfield was born June 14, 1918 in Bellingham, Wash. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1929 and attended 36th Street Elementary, Foshay Junior High and Manual Arts High. His parents were Arnett Hartsfield Sr. and Sadie Hartsfield.

While still a firefighter, Hartsfield used his GI Bill to attend both UCLA and USC, eventually earning his law degree from USC in 1955. Hartsfield attended UCLA with Tom Bradley, who would work his way up in the Los Angeles Police Department and eventually become a city councilman from the 10th District and, later, the first Black mayor of the city.

Hartsfield once reflected that, “I realize that I have really been lucky. A puppy’s eyes can open in seven days, but because I was stupid, it took 50 years for my eyes to come open,” he chuckled. “Fifty years to realize that I was being blessed.”

Among Hartsfield’s other accomplishments was serving as a professor of Black studies at Cal State Long Beach, a law practice that began in 1955, tenure as a civil service commissioner for Mayor Bradley, and his volunteer work as a docent at the museum across from the famed “Coca Cola Battleship” and not far from the Los Angeles Police Department’s old, segregated LAPD Newton Street precinct.

Hartsfield’s tenure with the LAFD would become an inspiration for all succeeding Blacks, women and people of color joining the department.

“You know, I’ve been a very fortunate man.” Hartsfield said. “I’ve outlived many of my friends and contemporaries (among them film star Woody Strode and UCLA classmates Bradley and Jackie Robinson), and I’ve seen four Black chiefs (Doug Barry, Millage Peaks, Daryl Osby and Brian Cummings).” Hartsfield knew Cummings when he was a boy and served with his father, Louis, in the department in the 1950s.

Hartsfield is survived by children Maria, Paula and Charlene (all in their 60s) and Arnett and Broderick in their 50s.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to the African American Fire Fighter Museum, 1401 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 90021 (213) 744-1730.