At every firehouse in Indianapolis, Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian firefighters report to duty 365 days a year eager to serve and protect the most valuable customers, our citizens. Firefighters report to duty with the courage to risk injury or death fighting fires or to save a life in a myriad of emergency medical situations.
Indianapolis Firefighters work together utilizing the best fire fighting equipment which includes; the latest protective clothing, technologically advanced pumpers that can push out over 2500 gallons of water per minute and aerial ladders that can extend over 105 feet into the sky. The Indianapolis firefighters of today are trained to mitigate situations involving below ground rescue, high angle rope rescue, hazardous materials and water rescue. However, a look back into history reveals to us that it was not always this way.
Currently, the Indianapolis Fire Department has 1182 sworn firefighters in suppression and administration. Black firefighters represent 15% of the fire fighting family (167 men and 8 women) and White firefighters represent 83% (942 men and 43 women). There are 14 Hispanic firefighters and 5 Asian firefighters. Firefighters from 44 fire stations have 78 different choices of rescue disciplines within which they are able to display their skills. However, at one time in the not too distant past, Black firefighters only had one choice.
Some people would prefer that we not look back and explore the past, but how can we understand where we are today if we do not know where we came from. How can we excel if we do not understand the trials and tribulations that our fellow firefighters endured so that all firefighters could enjoy the flexibility and strong relationships that exist today?
Author Randle Robinson, in his book "The Debt", challenges Americans to look back and question what happened in the era following the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960's. We must ask, what happened before the Middle Passage, the Jamestown landing in August of 1619 and even before the arrival of the Mayflower, which landed with African slaves in its hold. We ask these questions, so that the modern citizen can remember and understand the ancient traditions that make Black people proud of who we are.
Many people ask, "Why do we have to separate ourselves with a Black History Month and why do we need to have a Black Firefighters Association"? There are many valid answers to these questions. First, Americans have often been misinformed about the Negro (read W.E.B. Dubois Biography of a Race). This has occurred since the beginning of our rich American heritage when Black accomplishments have been downplayed, ideas and inventions were stolen and blacks were continually left out of American history. Furthermore, many negative images flow through the television and on news reports.
Inscribed on the National Archives building in Washington D. C. are the words "The Heritage of the Past is the Seed that Brings Forth the Harvest of the Future." The International Black Professional Fire Fighters Association wants to keep on the minds of Black firefighters that "All We are… We Owe" to the ones that came before us.
Black History Month is the perfect time to educate and remind all firefighters about the rich fire service history. On May 19, 1876 Fire Chief W. O. Sherwood appointed the first four Black men to the Indianapolis Fire Department to replace four White firefighters on Hose Company 9, located at 31 West Saint Joseph Street. Robert Braxton was the foreman with James Graves, Thomas Howard and Thomas Smith serving in his company.
In 1881 Hose Company 9 was moved to a new station at 1602 North Carrolton Avenue. In 1897 the number was changed from 9 to 16. Again, in 1922 the company is moved to another station located at 441 Indiana Avenue. There, the number was changed once again from station 16 to station 1.
Station 1 was an all Black (double company) firehouse with approximately 24 firefighters who rotated through two 24-hour shifts. The Black firefighters were exceptionally skilled and had a strong tradition of teaching the younger firefighters about the fire apparatus, equipment, safe operations, techniques, and toughing it out. The new Black firefighters had to learn the fireboxes in the district and were quizzed by the Black veterans.
Several retired Black firefighters stated that since this was an all Black firehouse, the only time a new Black firefighter was allowed to join the department was when another Black firefighter retired or died.
Black firefighters all across the country experienced like situations and met similar opposition went they wanted to join fire departments. Their perseverance resulted in the opportunities that Black firefighters enjoy today.
The oldest documents identifying government sanctioned Black firefighters, were found in New Orleans, Louisiana. A devastating fire in July 1817 led the governing body to organize its people to avoid another conflagration. All draymen and their equipment as well as individual free men of color and slaves were recruited.
Records from 1824 in Savannah, Georgia reveal that free men of color and hired slaves performed work at fires. The enrolled firefighters were exempt from the poll tax however, if they failed to answer an alarm or failed to keep the engine and equipment in good working condition, they were fined up to ten dollars or imprisoned up to 15 days.
On January 1, 1960 segregation on the Indianapolis Fire Department officially ended; however, a new chapter of discrimination began. Many would prefer that we not discuss and bring up the images of the past that were often negative and degrading. However, to ignore those facts would take away from how proud Black firefighters should be that we overcame and excelled despite the obstacles that were facing us.
A few White firefighters gave Black firefighters the "silent treatment" while others played a series of practical jokes or exhibited negative attitudes. This usually ended after the White firefighters discovered that the Black firefighters were very knowledgeable about the job and excelled in their performances. There were several reports that Black firefighters even rescued a few of the White firefighters in tight spots.
There was often discrimination in the hiring process due to the lack of strong political affiliations in the Black community. Some Black firefighters were not allowed to eat in the kitchen at the same time with White firefighters while others refused to sleep in the same room with a Black firefighter. However, the Black firefighters knew that they were paving the way for a better tomorrow.
The better tomorrow started in 1955 when the first Black Fire Captain (Roy Howard Sr.) said his last goodbye to retiring Black Captain Rensil Williams. The retirement allowed the hiring of Joseph Kimbrew. Joe had a very active career as he roved from station 1 to station 9 in Haughville. When the department was fully integrated, Joe transferred to the busiest Fire Company in the city, station 8. In 1968, Joe received the first "Firefighter of the Year" award. Then, Joe went on to become the first Black Fire Chief of the Indianapolis Fire Department on January 19, 1987.
Chief Kimbrew was not the only trailblazer. After integration, the first Black substitute firefighters were hired, including Herbert Miller, Henry Tanner (now a battalion chief), Edward Rogers (now a lieutenant) and Dwayne Robinson (now a retired captain). The first Black District Chief Pellman Johnson did what was needed to secure the future. Along with too many to mention in this short article, the names O. D. Howard, Bennie Sayles, Scott McKinney and Division Chief Charles Williams can never be forgotten.
Frederick Douglas wrote, "Power never concedes anything without a demand. It never has and it never will". Firefighter Eugene Miller lived by these words and demanded respect wherever he went, even into firehouses that where known to have discriminatory attitudes.
Patrick H. Raymond was appointed on January 5, 1871 as the first Black fire chief in the United States. He was also the recording secretary of the International Association of Fire Chiefs from 1873 – 1877. He retired in 1879 and later died in 1894.
Jim Stern became Los Angeles Fire Department's first Battalion Chief on February 6, 1968 and went on to become Chief of the Pasadena Fire Department. He also was one of the few Blacks ever elected President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
The first recorded female firefighter in the U.S. was African-American. Held under slavery by a New York City firefighter, Molly Williams worked on Oceanus Company No. 11 in the 1780's. Today there are over 500 Black women working as career firefighters and officers in the United States, along with a number of counterparts in the volunteer ranks.
Toni McIntosh was the first African-American woman to become a career firefighter in June of 1976. The first female hired by the Indianapolis Fire Department on was a Black woman named Byronna Slaughter, who was sworn in on March 3, 1978. After a short career and reports of harassment and lack of acceptance, she chose to leave the department. Since Byronna, eight other Black females have joined IFD. Today, the torch is carried by Dei Esther Johnson, Aleatha Henderson, Jo'ni Terrell-Kelley, Trasey Graham, Angela Patterson, Carla Isaacs, Phaedra Smith, Patricia Burnett and 43 White female firefighters.
For More Information check out the web site Black Women in the Fire Service
"Black firefighters, remember you've a hero in Jesus Christ. He is your perfect example of the supreme sacrifice. For he stood in the face of peril, & for us faced the danger and strife. He who conquered the forces of evil has gladly surrendered His Life."
Thomas Smith was one of the original four Black firefighters hired by IFD in 1876. He had retired from the department in 1899 but was reinstated at his own request a few months later. He was a lieutenant on Hose Wagon 16. On the morning of November 8, 1911 the hose wagon was dispatched to an alarm at 21st Street and Northwestern Avenue. As they traveled on 16th Street a streetcar that was southbound on College Avenue struck the hose wagon. Lt. Smith was killed instantly in the crash. He was 68 years old.
Clifford Woods was a private on Engine 1. At noon on December 16,1939 a fire was reported near New York Street and Hanson Avenue. As Engine 1 traveled south on Beauty Avenue towards New York Street, the apparatus hit a chuckhole and overturned. Pvt. Woods was trapped beneath the vehicle and died at the scene. He was 40 years old.
Roy Pope Jr. was a lieutenant on Engine 1. On August 17, 1963, Engine 1 responded to a second alarm fire at 1915 West 18th Street. Lt. Pope and another firefighter donned breathing apparatus and entered the building to search for the fire. According to reports, Lt. Pope had worked at this same building previously and knew the layout. According to firefighters at the scene, he and another firefighter located the fire and were exiting when they became separated. A search was started and Lt. Pope was found unconscious. He was taken to the hospital where he died an hour later. He was 38 years old.
Pvt. J.C. Smith was a private on Engine 14. While practicing diving maneuvers with three other fire fighters in a 70-foot deep rock pit, Pvt. Smith lost contact with his dive partner. Pvt. Smith was found moments later in cardiac arrest. He was air lifted to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was 27 years old.
As we move forward into the future, we should never forget the Black firefighters that came before us. We must remember the sacrifices made by all firefighters and work together with all races and sexes respecting and understanding each culture and celebrating the differences. We should continue to eliminate harassment in the workplace so we can accomplish our mission, to serve and protect. We must continue to educate ourselves through training, workshops, the Fire Department Instructors Conference, the Carl Holmes Executive Development Institute, the National Fire Academy and other avenues.
We must continue to share and keep the lines of communication open with our families in order to eliminate the pressures of stress from the job. We must continue to give back to the community through our time, talents and finances. We should serve as role models through the Black Firefighters Association, the Saint Florian Leadership Development Center, the Boys to Men Program, Survive Alive, our individual churches, Local 416 and as many other outlets as possible.
Nelson Mandela writes in his autobiography, "Our mission is to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. We merely have the freedom to fight a more difficult road to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. I have walked a long road of freedom and tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. I have climbed one mountain only to find another, I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended."
Questions about our Black History:Email : Chief Anthony Williamson: FirefighterT@iquest.net
References: IFD historical data collected by Dei Johnson and the Indiana Historical Society. National Data secured from the History of Black Firefighters website at http://www.hometown.aol.com/fireriter/index.html