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Famous Black Firefighters throughout History

It is black history month, a good time to reflect on the racial discrimination black people have endured and to honor some of those who endured. 

It goes without saying that before the 21st century, black firefighters were barely recognized.

That does not mean the few who got the chance to work as firefighters did not rise to the occasion.

Today we highlight some of the black firefighters who made history or accomplished something significant in their firefighting careers. 

Here are 10 famous black firefighters throughout history:

1.  Molly Williams

The first African-American firefighter was a woman, Molly Williams. She was a slave owned by a white New York City merchant. Williams was a volunteer at the Oceanus Engine Company No. 11, which was way before the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) was established. 

While volunteering as a firefighter, she used to wear a checked apron and calico dress. Her service was noted during the blizzard of 1818. Most of the male firefighters were unavailable due to a cholera outbreak. Williams joined those who were available and pulled an engine attached to drag ropes through the thick snow for a very long distance to put out a fire. 

2.  Sam Haskins

Sam Haskins, who was born as a slave in Virginia, paved the way for the employment of black people as firefighters in Los Angeles. 

Haskins, the first black man to work for the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD), worked as a call fireman, a part-time paid position that involved filling in for full-time firefighters who were either on vacation or sick off. 

In November 1895, he joined the others in responding to a fire alarm that came to Engine Company No. 2. While on the rear side of the engine’s tailboard, he lost balance, fell, and was fatally wounded. He died some time later, and became the first member of the fire department to die on the job. 

His death inspired a councilman to lobby the fire commission to establish an Engine Company composed of colored people only. In 1897, the LAFD employed George Bright, who became the department’s first full-time African-American firefighter. 

3.  William H. Nicholson

William Nicholson was born in Virginia in 1869. He moved to New York City where he worked as a cement tester before joining the fire department. 

In November 1898, Nicholson became the first black man to join the FDNY. He was assigned to Engine Company 6.

Due to racial discrimination, he was relegated to the veterinary department as a horse groomer. At that time, black people had to endure being assigned menial duties. It would have been embarrassing for white men if a black man was assigned an “important” duty and ended up outperforming them. 

Nicholson retired in 1911 after a medical examiner determined that he had a heart disease and could no longer perform his duties as a fireman. He died a few weeks after leaving the fire department. 

4.  Wesley Williams

Wesley Williams was the third black man to be employed by the FDNY and the first to be promoted to the rank of battalion chief. He started his 33-year career as a firefighter in 1919. 

Williams applied to be a firefighter in New York in 1918. He scored 100% in the physical exam, becoming the second person in the history of the department to do so. In the written exam, he was 13th out of 2,700 applicants. 

Williams was assigned to Engine 55, where he served until an injury forced him to resign in 1955. 

He faced racial discrimination throughout his career. For instance, when firefighters at Engine 55 learned that they would serve with a black man, all of them applied for a transfer. They also attempted to kill him by leaving him to put out a fire alone in a basement. 

Williams did not quit. He endured, applied for promotional exams, and rose to the rank of battalion chief by 1927.

In 1940, Williams created The Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters that fought the segregation practices of the FDNY.

5.   Patrick H. Raymond

In 1871, Patrick H Raymond was appointed Chief Engineer of the Cambridge Fire Department, in Massachusetts. He is widely regarded as the first black fire chief in the United States

Before joining the fire department, Raymond was a shoemaker before becoming a writer for the Boston Herald. From 1862 to 1864, he was in the US Navy serving in the Civil War. 

Raymond was described as an enthusiastic firefighter. He helped the Boston fire department to control the Great Fire of Boston in 1872.

Other achievements include advocating for robust fire prevention codes, advocating for the establishment of a fully-paid and permanent fire department, and lobbying for an increase in the number of fire companies. 

6.  Robert O. Lowery

Robert Lowery was the first African-American firefighter to rise to the rank of fire commissioner.

He joined the FDNY in 1941 and was promoted to fire marshal in 1946 after helping in the arrest of a man that had been involved in 30 incidents of burglary and arson. In 1960, he arrested an armed arsonist.

Lowery was an active member of The Vulcan Society, acting as its president for several years. He consistently addressed the issue of racial discrimination in the fire department. 

In 1965, he was appointed Fire Commissioner of the FDNY, a position he held until his retirement in 1973. 

7. Toni McIntosh

Toni McIntosh was the first African-American woman in the history of the US to become a full-time firefighter. She was employed by the Pittsburgh Fire Department in 1976. For more than a decade, she was the only female firefighter in the department. 

8. Cecelia Owens-Cox

Cecilia Owens-Cox was one of the first 41 women to be hired as firefighters by the FDNY in 1982. Two years later, in 1984, she became the first female firefighter to be assigned to a FDNY truck company. She was also the first female firefighter to be assigned driver at a truck company. 

Owens-Cox also advocated for the rights of female and colored firefighters. She was a member of The Vulcan Society and the United Women Firefighters. 

In June 2023, the city of New York honored Owens-Cox by naming a street in Jamaica after her. 

9. Frank Bailey

In 1955, Frank Arthur Bailey became the first black man to be a full-time firefighter in England

Bailey was born in Guyana. He came to England through the West Indian Standing Conference (WISC) in 1953 as a political activist.

Despite being told that the Fire Brigades Union does not employ black men in the fire service, Bailey applied, was accepted, and joined the West Ham Fire Brigade at the Silvertown Fire Station. 

Bailey retired from firefighting in 1965 to become a social worker. He became the first Black-British legal advisor at the magistrate’s courts in Marylebone. He specialized in providing legal advice to black youths. 

10. George Arthur Roberts

Roberts was a soldier in the First World War, an activist, and a firefighter in the London Fire Brigade. He is a hero and probably the first black man to become a firefighter in England. 

He was born in Trinidad, a Caribbean island, in 1891 and traveled to England at around the age of 20 to fight in the First World War. In 1915, Roberts fought in the Battle of Loos and later in Somme, where approximately 240,000 soldiers associated with Britain died. He left the army after getting wounded in 1916. 

After World War I, Roberts began activism by advocating for the rights of veterans. He was one of the founding members of the Royal British Legion and the founding chairman of the League of Colored Peoples. 

By the beginning of World War II, he was too old to fight. So he joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service, and served at the New Cross Fire Station during the war. Robert’s dedication in the fire service was recognized – in 1943 he became a Leading Fireman, and in 1944, King George VI awarded him the British Empire Medal (BEM). 

Also Check: The First Black Police Officers

Kenyalogue Contributor

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