This is an annotated version of the Early Black Firefighters of North Carolina web site, which is no longer available. It was researched and created by the late Chuck Milligan. This annotated version is intended to both archive the original site and provide supplementary information, including corrections or additions. Some formatting has been changed to enhance readability. Notations are presented with a yellow background. They are written by Mike Legeros or unless otherwise indicated. See also an archived version of a National History of Black Firefighters.

Change log:

Related historical documents by Legeros:

Early Black Firefighters of North Carolina, Annotated

Contents

Introduction
                                       
Ayden   Enfield   Monroe   Statesville  
Beaufort/   Farmville   Morehead City   Tarboro  
Charlotte   Fayetteville   New Berne   Wake Forest  
Clinton   Goldsboro   Oxford   Warrenton  
Concord   Greensboro   Princeville   Washington  
Durham   Greenville   Raleigh   Weldon  
East Spencer   Henderson   Rocky Mount   Wilmington  
Edenton   Lincolnton   Salisbury   Wilson  
Elizabeth City   Louisburg   Smithfield   Winston  
               
Convention Photos, 1996  
   
Names of Black Firefighters  

Introduction

Belt given by Winston N.C. Fire Department inscription reads Championship 1897. Photo by North Carolina Museum of History.

This belt was last held by the Red Hot Hose Company of Wilson N.C. It had been passed from one company to the other as the prize for the champion hose company. One letter is missing from the word championship and there is a hole in the center of the buckle that held some other inscription. It was donated to the Museum of History in Raleigh N.C.


This is the act as revised in the mid-sixties. The original name of the organization was "North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association". The organization was the counterpart of the "North Carolina State Firemen's Association" which had been chartered just prior to this.

The North Carolina State Volunteer Fireman's Association, later known as the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association, was organized in 1888 or 1889.

Their charter was ratified by the General Assembly on February 13, 1891. The trustees were listed as William M. Logan, Stephen J. Hawkins, John W. Patterson, Frank Milligan, John N. McDuggie, Elisah Gause, John Smith, D. W. McCain, Peyton H. Smith, Thomas B. Burghes, Lewis McMillian, and William Croom. The charter declared that the officers of the association would consist of a President, two Vice Presidents, a Treasurer, a Secretary, an Assistant Secretary, and a board of nine Directors. Source: N.C. General Assembly, North Carolina Private Laws, 1891, chapter 53, p780.



The North Carolina State Fireman's Association was organized in 1888, after Chief E. B. Englehard of Raleigh, Chief C. D. Benbon of Greensboro, and Chief James D. McNeill of Fayetteville called a meeting of the state's firemen in Greensboro on September 26, 1888. The charter members consisted of (white) firefighters from Durham, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Raleigh, Salem, and Winston. The organization's charter was ratified by the General Assembly on March 11, 1889. 

HOW AND WHY

The Jamestown fire was the first disaster in the new world attributed to fire. Provisions and shelter were destroyed leaving the early settlers to face the elements without food or shelter. This should have been warning enough to any new comers that they should be prepared to fight fire and to prevent it when possible. History will repeat its self at every opportunity.

The provincial government of early North Carolina was charged with the passing of acts establishing towns. Such acts usually included some language pertaining to fire protection for these fledgling cities. This appears to be early efforts at a fire prevention code:

"And be it further Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That every Complaint of Nuisances, by Lumber or Rubbish Lying upon the Streets, or Warfs, Dangers of Fire, arising from Wooden Chimneys, or any such hazardous Building, shall be determined by Commissioners as aforesaid."

Other early legislative language included:

"And whereas all Dangers arising from Fire in said Town are very great and a Necessity appears for Providing a Water-Engine, Buckets, Ladders and other Instruments, necessary on such Occasion" After which provisions were made for taxation of property to pay for fire equipment such as "Water-Engines, Buckets, Ladders and other Instruments of extinguishment"----"also an Alarm or Town Bell"----. "to oblige the Inhabitants to keep Sufficient number of Leather Buckets, in their Houses, with their Names thereon, to be ready in Case of Fire; to erect a Fire Company, under such Regulations as they may think necessary."

In some cases an engine with a pump was required, and wells dug for fighting fire, was typical.

These first few sessions of the Assembly were a learning experience. They learned that simply decreeing that a problem be solved did not always solve it. After several tries at getting Wilmington started down the right path a session in 1767 dealt with some of the same problems they had been dealing with for 26 years.

"IV And whereas, the Inhabitants of the said town have been at great expense in procuring an Engine for the Extinguishing of fire, which is now out of repair,

"V. Be it further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That the said Commissioners, or the Majority of them, shall and they are hereby required within Six Months after the passing of this Act, to have the said Engine repaired and that they Cause the same to be properly worked at least once in every month under the penalty of Forty Shillings, -----"

Signed by William Tryon, Esq. Governor, John Rutherford, president, and John Harvey, speaker.

Any time an enemy army threatens a town or city there is always a danger of fire. When the Colonies were first settled there was the danger of fire from Indians. Fire has always been a weapon in time of war. During the revolutionary war Cornwallis made a meandering tour of some of the early settlements threatening in each instant some harm to the inhabitants and of course in the back of everyone mind is the intimidation of fire.

The Assembly turned their attention to the more inland area of the Colony. Wilmington, Edenton, Salisbury and Hillsboro were just a few of these early towns. Regulations regarding chimney construction became common practice, and a special tax could be levied to support these rules. 

"An Act for the regulation of the Town of Salisbury, securing the Inhabitants in their Possessions, and to encourage the Settlement of the said Town.

"And to prevent Dangers arising by Fire, Be it Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That each and every Householder within the said Town of Salisbury, shall procure or cause to be procured, two sufficient Leather buckets, and a Ladder and keep same in continual readiness against any Alarm that may be given, occasioned by breaking out of Fire at any Time in the said Town; on Penalty of paying Twenty Shillings Proclamation Money."

Mid eighteen hundreds in North Carolina, towns and hamlets spring up within 10 to 20 miles of each other. The spacing is due to the mode of transportation. Most people are confined to walking, horse back or wagon for transportation. A trip to town could take all day, time was very important when depending on weather and season for your livelihood

Agriculture was the prime occupation. A visit to town had to be for a purpose and not for simple pleasure. The towns of this era were not large, most being less than 1,000 population. Buildings were of frame construction with wood shingles. Very few could boast a water system, and without water, an effective fire department was next to impossible.

Industrial plant owners knew the devastation a fire could bring and were therefore willing to establish a method to combat fires on their own property.

Elevated tanks filled with water, by pumps from wells or other sources supplied water for yard hydrants about the property, and furnished water for sprinkler systems. Barrels of sand or water with buckets nearby were also used to fight fire.

Every one was fire conscious and took every precaution to insure safety.

BUCKETS, FIRE MARKS, AND FIRE ALARM SYSTEMS

Who will man the buckets?

Everyone wanted to be of assistance when fire struck. Confusion could easily be the biggest stumbling block. One of the first methods to assure all could help was instituted in the larger northern cities. Each home had a leather bucket for fighting fire. The bucket was decorated with the family crest or some other logo to make it easy to identify.

Upon the discovery of fire a shout of "throw out your buckets" was given. Buckets were tossed to the middle of the street if no able bodied male was at home. Any one was allowed to retrieve the bucket and go on to the fire. At the conclusion of the fire the buckets were placed on a pile and each family would claim their own.

Benjamin Franklin was credited with forming one of the first fire departments. He started his own fire insurance company and worked closely with the insurance industry. He organized his firemen to protect insured property, uninsured property received no protection.

To distinguish insured properties, fire marks were issued to the home owner or business to display in a conspicuous location on the building, usually on a second floor, to discourage theft. To be assured that the first fire company to arrive would put the fire out, some would buy insurance from several companies and display a number of fire marks. These fire marks were of heavy metal, usually cast in relief, and painted with the logo and colors of the fire company.

Fire companies arriving on the scene would do anything to disrupt the efforts of firemen trying to fight fires in property insured by their rival company, starting fights and damaging equipment. Because of all the fighting, no fires were being put out. The recruiting for new firemen was centered around bars where street brawls occurred. The most successful fighters were in big demand as recruits. Franklin must have spent some time in some of these taverns for he is quoted as having said "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" Things got worse before they got better and different tactics were needed.

Fire marks were those metal plates affixed to American buildings beginning in the 1700s, and that indicated which volunteer fire company would fight a fire there. And that they'd receive a reward if they responded. And if a different fire company arrived, they'd let the building burn. Etcetera. Good stories, but are they true? Probably not, notes Robert M. Shea in this excellent article American Fire Marks - A Good Storya>, found at the website firemarkcircle.org. The author includes ample footnotes for his research, and concludes that American fire marks served primarily as a sign that the property was insured. A form of advertising, which he calls "one of the longest and successful ad campaigns in America." They were issued by insurance companies in our country for over 150 years.

Names for fire companies were a must and one would think the name would imply the nature of the group. However one of the earliest was named "FRIENDSHIP" and would have been hard pressed to be seen as friendly. Methods of organizing changed and the firemen no longer work for the insurance companies but have always had a close relationship. The insurance companies depend on the firemen to hold their losses down, and the firemen are grateful for the insurance companies support. One of the compelling reasons for having an efficient fire department is the savings in fire insurance premiums. Fire prevention week coincides with the week of the great Chicago fire, one of the most devastating fires in early history, and is a joint effort of the modern fire department and the insurance companies to alert citizens of fire hazard.

Methods developed over the years for sounding the alarm and notifying the volunteer fire fighters. The notification system used by one town in the mountains was a shotgun blast. Bells, whistles and later electric sirens were used to alert fire fighters. Trains coming through town and discovering as blaze, would sound their whistles and clang the bell to awaken sleeping residents.

As time went by the fire alarm box came into use. Placed in strategic locations they were activated by those discovering a fire. There must have been some concern about false alarms even with the earliest boxes. A key was required to activate the alarm and transmit it to a central location. The key for these boxes were kept in a place of business or a residence near the box. The location of the key was apparently known to the citizens of that town.

WHAT IT TAKES

What is the make up of a fireman? These early fire fighters had to be of a very special breed. All of the activity involved physical strength, mental stability and an extra dose of courage. In North Carolina there were no formal fire fighting schools until early in the 1900s when the Insurance Commissioner appointed a deputy commissioner named Sherwood Brockwell.

The first state fire school was initiated in 1914. See annotation below.

Mr. Brockwell had been raised near the fire station in Raleigh and was an unofficial member of the fire department before he was 16 years old. His early connection with the fire service instilled in him a growing interest in the welfare of firefighters. Mr. Brockwell traveled to New York and joined the New York fire department in order to receive training in modern fire fighting tactics. He was involved in rescuing people from a burning hotel while there.

Mr. Brockwell was appointed chief of the Raleigh fire department while still serving in New York. The Raleigh department had ordered some new motorized fire equipment from a firm near the route Mr. Brockwell planned to take in returning to Raleigh. He stopped off long enough to help assemble the new fire trucks for Raleigh. 

Couple corrections. Sherwood B. Brockwell was Foreman of the Rescue Company when he was appointed chief of the volunteer Raleigh Fire Department on June 7, 1912. He was hired to lead the transition to a fully-paid fire department. During this time, he attended the New York School of Instruction for Firemen during September and October of 1912. He was appointed chief of the paid fire department on November 1, 1912. He was twenty-seven years old and his salary was $1,500. The paid fire department was placed in service the following month.

Mr. Brockwell served as chief of the Raleigh fire department for a short period before assuming the duties of "State Fire Marshal." He made a statement to the press at the time of his taking office that he was going to institute a training program for the firemen of the state.

Brockwell's pioneering work in fire prevention and school safety led to his appointment as the first state Fire Marshal on August 1, 1914. He resigned as Fire Chief on that date, and held the position of Fire Marshal until his death in 1953. Two days into office, he initiated a statewide training program for firefighters, a first in the country. He initiated fire colleges and drill schools in several other states. He designed programs for school safety, and helped draft legislation including a state building code in 1941. He also authored many articles and manuals for the fire service, held many offices in state and national associations, and was an honorary member of many state firefighter organizations. He died at age sixty-seven on June 2, 1953.

Until this time the only training a fire fighter received was from experience. This could sometimes be hazardous. The most common method of putting out a fire was to use water. Water weighs just over eight pounds per gallon. Moving enough water to put out a fire, regardless of the method could be exhausting for a man in excellent physical condition. Most of the equipment was moved by man power and it was not light. Time was a most important factor, fire spreads rapidly and can get out of control quickly. Time of day or weather is not a consideration. A fire fighter must respond to every call regardless. A willingness to work with others in a combined effort is another requirement. Each man is important, but no man is more important than the objective. Save property and lives.

Fire can be a most terrifying and unforgiving opponent. It is unpredictable and requires a concerted effort. The men who volunteered for such duty were making a great commitment to their fellow man. Falling timbers and walls was another of the hazards they faced. Accounts of men losing their life to both of these are related in this book.

Breathing equipment and protective clothing was not yet available to most early fire fighters. Helmets made of leather were available for a price, rubber boots and coats could also be had. Dress uniforms were more desirable than any safety gear. Light for entering a burning building was from a kerosene lantern. Some may have worn leather gloves.

To be able to enter a smoke filled building with out breathing equipment was the macho thing of these early fire fighters.

MAN POWER TO HORSE POWER

The bucket brigade being one of the first fire fighting organizations was replaced by more advanced equipment.

The earliest "fire engine" or pump in North Carolina is on display in "Old Salem". Engines of this type are called the Newsham engine. This engine has no wheels but is intended to be carried by two or four men by the handles on either end. Each end has a box like container for the bucket people to empty their buckets in. The long handle is then pumped up and down taking water from the boxes and forcing it out of the swivel nozzle on top. Water could be thrown for some distance, an improvement over dumping water directly from the buckets onto the fire. Later models had small wooden wheels that helped in moving it. The width of the machine was 36 inches, The narrow width made it possible to take it through some doors and between buildings.

The "Old Salem" engine was purchased in 1765, this was some thirty five or so years after such engines were placed in service in northern cities. As the size and weight of machines grew it was soon discovered that most of the energy of the fire firefighters was expended on moving equipment over sometimes rough and muddy streets, and the equipment was converted from man power to horse power.

A well trained fire horse was a real prize and a pair was most coveted. New York City purchased 30 to 50 horses a month and reserved the right to reject any or all of them within 30 days. Some did not have the temperament or the strength for the work. Others finished their training and went on to serve for several years. The horses were considered a part of the team and were treated as well as the men.

They soon learned to take their place in front of the wagon and wait for the harness to drop from the ceiling and be fastened under their neck. This all happened at the sound of the fire bell, they needed no prompting and were eager to do their job. The race to the fire was exhilarating for the horses as well as the firemen. Fire horses were trained to run in step with one another for a smoother ride. It was a sad day when an old fire horse was retired but they never forgot their training. Many tales were told about retired fire horses bolting at the sound of a hammer on an anvil or some other noise to remind them of a fire bell. All were named and became familiar to the citizens of the town. 

Fire horses began appearing in North Carolina in the 1880s. See this history of North Carolina Fire Horses.

Two of the horses from Durham were known state wide and recognized as two of the best trained and well loved horses. They were Dixie and Old Bill. Old Bill lived for almost thirty years and was such a pet that he was never sold or retired but lived out his days at the fire house. In his younger days one of the neighborhood children felt he needed to be exercised and slipped Bill out of his stall to ride him about the area. During this excursion the young lad fell from the horse and injured his arm. Bill, realizing his rider had fallen and was injured returned to stand over him until help arrived. When answering fire calls his driver had to position him to observe the activities or Bill would become restless. He had to know what was going on at the fire.

Other horses in other cities were equally as good I am sure but this horse was a great favorite. A committee reported to the aldermen September 20, 1909, that the attempt to sell two of the horses, Bill and Dixie, no bid on Bill and $81.00 was bid for Dixie. The horses suffered the same fate as human laborers they were replaced by machines. They out lived their usefulness.

Horses around the state were also considered favorites to their own departments. Morehead City had "Gib", and later purchased "Rex." New Bern had "Fred" who served with the Atlantic company and "Ben Hurst" of the Button company. Greensboro had their own favorite horse named "Prince" who was a favorite of theirs.

EQUIPMENT

Leather buckets have already been discussed. Rubber buckets were developed at a much later date. One might ask the reason for a material such as leather or rubber for buckets. Didn't they have the ability to make wooden or metal buckets? Yes, they did, but consider the abuse a bucket must take when used for fighting fire. The bucket was filled at a well, stream, pond, or other source and carried to the fire or passed along a line and in the excitement were dropped thrown or otherwise banged around. Such treatment of a wooden or metal bucket would soon cause it to develop such leaks as to become useless, the leather or rubber could take considerable punishment and still hold water. Rubber buckets were carried on the hook and ladder wagon in Durham as one of the first pieces of equipment.

Hooks and chains. How could you possibly use hooks and chains to put out a fire? First we need to understand something about fire. In the study of fire, the fire triangle is used to explain the theory. A triangle has three equal sides, one side represents fuel, one side oxygen and the third heat. If any one side is removed, fire can not continue. The hooks and chains were used to remove fuel. If a fire was spreading beyond control, buildings or other fuel in its path were pulled down to stop the spread. This is much the same as the plow used in forest fires to plow under grass and other fuel in the path of the fire. When the fire has consumed the fuel in its path, it goes out.

This looked like a drastic measure to tear down some ones home to stop a fire. This method was accepted by everyone of this day for they were willing to make this type of sacrifice for the good of their neighbors. In the same spirit they banned together to help rebuild after the fire. The hooks were attached to the end of the chains and were much like the grappling hooks of modern day. The power needed to pull down the house was either man power or horse power. The hooks and chains were carried on the ladder wagon and this is where we get the term hook and ladder wagon which is still used by some people today even though hooks and chains are no longer a part of the equipment. Explosives for blowing up buildings in the path of a fire were also a part of the equipment of some departments. Early laws gave the fire chief this authority.

LATER APPARATUS

The hose reel was a high two wheel cart, with a drum like arrangement between the wheels much like a large fishing reel. The hose was rolled onto the drum and the cart was pulled by several men. When reaching the fire the hose was reeled off and attached to a hydrant on one end and a nozzle placed on the other end. The water pressure was from steam driven pumps of the water system or gravity pressure from elevated tanks. Larger reels were developed and attached to four wheel wagons to be pulled by horses.

Hose wagons were horse drawn and the hose was carried folded in the bed rather than rolled on a reel. The wagon could then stop at the hydrant and drop off one man with the end of the hose to be attached to the hydrant while the wagon continued to the fire with hose unfolding and falling behind the wagon as it moved. Upon reaching the fire the hose could be taken apart at the nearest coupling and a nozzle placed on the end to fight the fire.

Hose laid into a bed rather than rolled on a reel resulting from a change in how hose was manufactured.
 
The first practical fire house, invented in 1673, consisted of leather sewn together in a single stream. Metal rivets were added over a century later. The hose was heavy and largely inflexible. Drums (or reels) were developed for transporting the hose. Short (single?) could be wound on a reel on the hand-engine itself. Longer lengths could be wound on reels mounted on a two- or four-wheel wagon. Leather hose required quite a bit of maintenance. It was drained and dried after each use. Oils were then applied, to keep the hose preserved.

Rubber-lined, cotton-web fire hose was patented in 1821. However, it took a number of decades before it became commonly used. By the 1870s, B. F. Goodrich had developed rubber hose reinforced with cotton ply. There was a standard size for couplings adopted by the International Association of Fire Engineers. And advertisements touted hose  as tested to 350 PSI. The high-strength hose was produced for steam engines, which were increasingly replacing the lower-capacity hand engines.
 
When the rubber or cotton hose was wound on traditional hose reels, however, it developed mildew and rot. The problem was poor air circulation. Since hose was now flexible, a method was developed of packing hose on a flat plane. Transportation in the bed of a wagon was ideal, and thus developed the hose wagon. The bed was ventilated, with wooden slates on the bottom and sides. Water could rain, and air could enter.

Also by the 1870s, horses were becoming a fixture of the fire service. They were becoming popular for a couple reasons. They could easily pull the heavier apparatus, versus the dozens of men required for same. The largest hand engines by that time could weigh as much as two tons. The new steam engines were just as heavy, if not more. And in cities that were developing paid fire departments, they couldn't afford the raw numbers of men to pull the engines. Horses were much cheaper. Thus the appearance mid- to late-century of horse-drawn hose reels and later horse-drawn hose wagons.

The chemical engine was an early attempt to have a portable source of water under pressure. Several configurations were used, some with one large fire extinguisher, some with two, most were forty or fifty gallon capacity with several feet of rubber hose and a nozzle. Some chemical engines also carried fire hose in the bed of the wagon like the hose wagon. The chemicals used were two solutions separated by an outer container and an inner container, when the solution from the inner container was released to mix with the solution in the outer container a gas was formed and the two solutions combined to make a foam . The gas made enough pressure to expel the foam from the nozzle and the stream was directed on the fire. The only people happy with these devices were the manufacturers and their salesmen. They may have been somewhat better than nothing.

Chemical engines were larger versions of chemical (or "soda") extinguishers used in homes and businesses. These were turned upside down, to release the mixture that powered the release of the water. Chemical tanks, as noted above, were carried on hand- and horse-drawn apparatus. They were paired with other functions, such as carried on a hose wagon, which was called a "combination hose wagon." Chemical tanks were also installed on motor trucks, including "combination hose cars" (which carried a chemical tank and a hose bed), a "triple combination" (which carried a chemical tank, a pumping engine, and a hose bed), and a "combination ladder truck" (which was a service ladder truck also equipped with a chemical tank). The larger "quadruple combination" and later "quintuple combination" trucks combined all of the above features as a "quad" and added an aerial device for a "quint".

The hand engine was a pump operated by man power, with a handle on either side running the length of the apparatus, which was called a brake. Several men were required to work on each brake as one brake was pulled down the brake on the other side would rise. The engine could pump from a static source i.e. a pond, stream or shallow well or cistern. It could be used to increase pressure from a weak hydrant. Large fire companies were required for these pumps for the work was hard and frequent rests were needed.

The steam engine was an improvement over all previous devices designed to furnish a predictable stream of water capable of throwing the stream to great heights. This was a heavy piece of equipment and required horses to pull them. During the transition from horses to motor driven equipment some of them were towed to fires behind powered vehicles and were maintained as reserve units long after the horses were gone. Steam had long been used as stationary power as well as on locomotive engines and had proved dependable and powerful. There were a number of different manufacturers and designs but all proved effective.

Motorized equipment has developed over the years from the very simple to the behemoth of high technology we find on the streets of today. The Ford T model as well as other early gasoline driven fire units was never as dependable as the horse and had no personality at all. Many an early firefighter wept openly as the horses were led away to be replaced by a dumb machine.

AFRO-AMERICAN FIREMEN

Wilmington and Charlotte were probably the first cities in North Carolina to recognize a need for a fire department that could be held accountable. Charlotte enlisted slaves as firefighters prior to the War Between the States.. The commissioners authorized Fayetteville to enlist slaves in their fire department in 1848. Richmond Virginia, was another southern city that used slaves to fight fire , and kept a black fire company as late as the 1930s. Records are sketchy and do not give a full account but there is enough evidence that slaves were a part of a number of fire departments.

The war between the states had an influence on the make up of the organized fire fighting efforts in the south. As the Yankee army began to occupy the cities along the coast African Americans rushed to met the invading army. Great numbers of slaves ran from their masters and pressed into the occupied towns. The end result was a transfer of the black population to the communities along the coastal plain. General Sherman with his scorched earth policy struck fear in the hearts of many a southerner. The mere mention of the name of the dreaded Yankee Sherman made bold men tremble at the thought of losing every thing they owned and perhaps their lives to fire. Fortunately for North Carolina the war was winding down by the time Sherman made his visit here. After the war was over and these former slaves began to take their place in society many felt an urge to serve their fellow citizens in a constructive manner. "At the turn of the century, many eastern North Carolina towns chiefly relied upon colored firemen for fire protection."

CONVENTIONS AND TOURNAMENTS

An organization of black firefighters was formed in 1888 or 1889 called "North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association." The white firefighters had a similar organization formed about the same time. Annual conventions and tournaments were held and large crowds came from long distance to be a part of the celebration. A parade would lead off the event with displays of fire equipment and flashy uniforms. Bands led the groups and the occasion was very festive. Bunting hung from buildings and poles were decorated. The firemen were welcomed by some of the prominent citizens and religious leaders. The speeches indicate the high esteem felt for the firefighters by both black and white. C.B. Green, one of the founders of Durham spoke at the fifth annual convention and tournament of The North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association.. At the end of his speech and a reply by J.H. Johnson, secretary of the Association, cigars were given out to all those in attendance. The Durham Globe gave a glowing account of the good impression the firemen had made on the people of Durham.

One of the main streets would be blocked off and bleachers erected or other seating made available. The hose reel races would involve a dash to the hydrant, hook up the hose, reel off forty eight feet of hose and attach a nozzle. Water was turned on and the pressure would tell if the hose was secure. A blown off nozzle or hose would disqualify the team. All events were timed and new records were set regularly. The hook and ladder companies raced against the clock in making their runs. The steamers were timed for working steam pressure and the distance water was thrown. This was hard work and dangerous, several were injured while practicing or during the tournaments. In the reel events the firemen wore a harness and were hooked together to pull the reels. If one fell he was dragged to the finish line. In the early days all the equipment was pulled by hand but as the town grew horses were used.

One of the earliest recorded conventions of North Carolina firefighters was held in Raleigh on October 15, 1873. The meeting, called for all colored firemen in state by members of fire companies in Raleigh, Fayetteville, New Bern, and Wilmington, was held in the Victor Fire Company hall. The goal of the meeting was conveyed in a newspaper announcement:
 
"The object of the Convention is to establish a unified understanding with all the colored firemen in the State, with regard to our future welfare and prosperity. We believe it to be our duty to assist in extinguishing any and all fires that occur in any city or town in this State. We believe a good reliable fire company in any town is as good as an insurance company. We further believe our movement will encourage those who are ready and willing to build up the good old North State. We hope that all colored companies in North Carolina whose intentions are to protect property with their labor against fire will comply with the request for a Convention by sending delegates there to. The said Convention will be composed of five delegates appointed from each colored fire company in the State, or each company is entitled to five votes on all questions in Convention. Also every company is solicited to attend in full as it is an important object."
 
Source: Daily Sentinel [of Raleigh], Sept. 30, Oct. 9, 1873.

Lodging for the visiting firemen could have been a real problem. There were no black hotels and they were not allowed in the white hotels. The black citizens of the sponsoring city took the responsibility of housing the visiting firemen. This was a tremendous undertaking but the feeling is that the church made it all possible. Written accounts give a strong impression that most if not all the early black firefighters were much involved with their churches. The A.M.E. Zion church was a great influence in North Carolina. When the tournament was held in Durham in 1907, the foreman of the Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company, Bart Barbee, opened his home to the officers of the state organization. The parade was almost a mile long with over 600 people attending from other cities. They were quartered in private homes. With today's social climate we find this difficult to even imagine. This practice continued as long as the conventions and tournaments were held.

In almost every instance the law enforcement officials were surprised by the good behavior of the visiting firemen. At the 1907 convention at the conclusion of the welcoming address the chairman of the association introduced Professor L.R. Randolf of Washington, to give a response. He spoke of the kind treatment they had received as an indication of the sincere welcome offered by the citizens. While speaking of his membership in the association he likened it to being a member of the church, in that it was " Composed of the very best and highest element of Negroes in the state. It is not made up of dudes, loafers, the crap shooter, or he who commits the nameless crime. We love North Carolina and we stand side by side with our white friends to assist them in all they undertake." Dr. James E. Sheperd spoke next and continued in the same vein. He remarked on the good relations enjoyed between the races and felt it was because as a rule they were law abiding. He suggested that all should do their duty and try to raise some other person to the same high level as the volunteer firemen. The praise given was well deserved, for most received little or no other pay for their labors. In some cities they were exempt from poll tax and on occasion given a bonus at Christmas Tournaments were held in the following cities and years:

For more tournament cities and dates, see http://www.legeros.com/history/

A list of cities using black fire companies in their early development were:

  • Beaufort
  • Charlotte
  • Clinton
  • Concord
  • Durham
  • Edenton
  • East Spencer
  • Enfield
  • Elizabeth City
         
  • Farmville
  • Fayetteville
  • Goldsboro.
  • Greensboro
  • Greenville
  • Henderson
  • Louisburg
  • Lincolnton
  • Monroe
         
  • New Bern
  • Oxford
  • Princeville
  • Swansboro
  • Raleigh
  • Rocky Mount
  • Salisbury
  • Smithfield
  • Statesville
         
  • Tarboro
  • Wake Forest
  • Warrenton
  • Washington
  • Weldon
  • Wilmington
  • Wilson
  • Winston.

Some of these early units had names such as:

  • Athletics
  • Cape Fear
  • Defiance
  • Dibble
  • Neptune
  • Excelsior
  • Enterprise
  • Fulton
         
  • Plummer
  • Red Hot
  • Rough and Ready
  • Swift Foot
  • Sixth Ward
  • Union
  • Victor
  • White Rose

 

For more colored fire company names, see http://www.legeros.com/history/

Most of the black fire companies were phased out with the horses and volunteer fire departments, however some cities maintained their black fire companies on into the 1930s. As of this writing Warrenton, East Spencer, Princeville, and Greenville still have fire companies with their roots in the mid 1800s.

Early officers of the state organization included:

Later officers included

AYDEN

Ayden was mentioned by John Bizzell as having a black fire company. There has been no documentation at this time.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps dated 1916, 1919, 1925, and 1939 do not list the races of the town's volunteer firemen.

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BEAUFORT

Documents show Beaufort as having black firefighters as early as 1908 with 20 members manning a hand engine and a hose reel. 1913 gives the same numbers while records for 1924 show 21 members manning a hose reel with the hand pumper gone.


 
Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from December 1913 list Beaufort's second fire company as colored and housed next to Town Hall at 305 Broad Street, with 20 volunteers, one hose reel with 800 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose, and one hand engine.
 

 
Sanborn Fire Insurance map from 1924:
 

 

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CHARLOTTE

Colonel Charles Samuel Lafayette Alexander Taylor
Photo donated by James Richardson, Col. Taylor's charge at an early age.

Much like other larger cities in the state, Charlotte enlisted slaves in the fire department before the War Between the States. At some point after the war two black companies were formed with the Neptune company continuing until 1907. The Neptune company furnished leadership for the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association. One prominent figure of this organization was Colonel C.S.L.A. Taylor. Taylor was the only black colonel in the Spanish-American war from Charlotte. His leadership ability helped him to serve as Financial Secretary of the state organization for a number of years.

Hand engine of Neptune later restored by Newbury Mass. Photos courtesy of Doug Hickin, Charlotte, NC Fire Department.

African-American Influence in the Charlotte Fire Department

Even in the days of slavery Mecklenburg area residents would not tolerate the mistreatment of animals or slaves. Anyone rumored to be guilty of this type of behavior was shunned by the rest of the community. This may have come from the Quaker influence. The great wagon road from Pennsylvania funneled early settlers into the western piedmont and foot hills. Charlotteans then as now had a much different idea of how thing should be done.

Many of the slave holders felt the need to educate their slaves and because of this when emancipation came they had an advantage when they faced their new found freedom. In the span of only 30 years many former slaves had risen to positions of authority both in private and political life. They were quick to take their place in civic endeavors.

No greater cause can be found than to come to the aid of a fellow man in time of distress. Fire was a devastating threat and water the only reliable extinguishing agent. Every firefighting operation was labor intensive. Using manpower to move water can be extremely tiring. To be a volunteer fireman in this era was for the physical and mentally fit.

One young man stands out above all others. Charles Samuel LaFayette Alexander Taylor was born in Charlotte in 1854. He was educated in a Quaker school. He was an accomplished musician, a dancing master, a shoemaker and a barber. He taught ballroom dancing to the prominent white ladies of Charlotte. His contact with the fire department could have come very early as slaves were used in the fire department prior to the War Between the States. He was elected and served as an Alderman of the Charlotte City Government from 1885 to 1887. He held the title of Chief Marshal at one time. Taylor served in the Charlotte Light Infantry in 1887, first as a Lieutenant and after one year was promoted to Captain. When the war with Spain broke out he took command of company A 1st battalion on April 17, 1898. He was promoted to Lt. Colonel of the 3rd regiment June 23, 1898. From this point on he was known as Colonel Taylor.

Col. Taylor, found time to volunteer as a firefighter and was a member of the Neptune Company. His leadership ability was recognized by all he came in contact with. At a height of 5 ft. 7 1/2 inches he was not a tall man but stood tall among his peers as he carried himself in an erect manor and being well groomed commanded respect from all.

On May 12, 1891 the General Assembly of North Carolina ratified a charter for the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen’s Association. Col. Taylor was soon taking a leadership role and served as Financial Secretary for an number of years before assuming the Presidency in the late 1920s. With all of the many duties of the different offices he held he still found time to be a dedicated member of the A.M.E. Church and served as choir director. He was a member of the Masons, an Elk and an Odd Fellow. Though Taylor stood out in his community others that were serving as volunteer firemen over the state were college professors, ministers and leaders in other professions as well. Being a volunteer fireman was a rewarding and respected position.

More than one group of men organized into fire companies. One such group, in Charlotte, the Dreadnaughts, were active when the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen’s Association held their August 1893 convention and tournament in Charlotte. This was a three or four day event and attracted visitors from over the state. Railroads gave special fares to these meetings and the contests drew local citizen of all races to witness the activities. The City Government helped sponsor the convention with a sizable donation. The Dreadnaughts did not fair well in the contests as the Charlotte Observer declared “They let Greensboro, Raleigh and Neptune’s of Charlotte walk their log pretty badly.” The only other company listed in the state was Henderson and they came in last in two of three events. The last comment in that column stated that “ The city is always glad to open her gates to such well-behaved visitors; she will be glad to see them again.” The following year the meetings were held in Durham where Taylor was elected Financial Secretary and J.H. Johnson was appointed to the Legislative Committee.

In 1907 the Neptunes were disbanded. They continued as members of the NCCVFA for many more years but lost their leader, Col. Taylor.


A LIFE FOR AN EGG
Photo of Samuel Richardson at right

Bloodshed After the Fire----Sam Richardson, a Colored Fireman, Runs into Wilder's Drug Store and Drops Dead on the Floor--Killed by a Fellow Fireman

About one o'clock yesterday after noon, as Trade street was crowded with people looking at the ruins of the still smoldering fire, their attention was suddenly diverted by a commotion further down the street near the Hornet engine House. A colored man, with blood streaming from his throat, was seen to run from Kirk's bar room, next door to the engine house, to Dr. Wilder's Drug Store on the Corner of College and Trade streets, and an excited crowd followed him and stood around the door of the drug store which was closed immediately after the wounded man entered. He proved to be a colored fireman named Sam Richardson, and he had scarcely entered the drug store when he fell to the floor, gave a gasp and expired. He had been stabbed by another colored man named Isaiah Bronson.      Both men had been working at the fire since 5 o'clock yesterday morning and both had done good service. They had taken several drinks of whiskey and as they met at Kirk's bar both were feeling the effects of their drink. Bronson went to the bar and found Richardson there, and the two men commenced talking in a jocular manner to each other Bronson had an egg in his coat pocket and Richardson slapped his hand on the pocket and broke the egg. This angered Bronson who remarked to Richardson: "That egg will cost you $7 at the mayor's court Monday morning." Bronson then stepped out the door and called "police," when he again entered the bar. Richardson walked up to Bronson and slapped him in the face, and Bronson stepped backward to the door, Richardson following him up. They struck at each other simultaneously and Richardson fell back with blood streaming from his throat. Mr. Duffy, the saloon keeper, told Richardson to run to the drug store, which he did, and the result has already been stated.

Daily Charlotte Observer: Sunday, February 22, 1885
Photo of Samuel Richardson given by Cecelia Wilson his grand daughter.
 


The grand-daughter of Samuel Richardson related how her grand-mother and her children were left destitute by the early death of a father and husband. A white family saw the needs of the widow and children and offered them food and shelter in their home. Their need were fully met and the children were educated and went on to lead successful lives.

Neptune Hose Wagon
Photo courtesy Charlotte Fire Department

Sanborn Maps from 1890 and 1896:
 
 
 
 

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CLINTON

A company of black firefighters represented Clinton at an early convention but no other information has surfaced.

CONCORD

Concord Hook and Ladder
Photo courtesy of North Carolina Department of Archives N76 6 48

As mentioned earlier without a water supply a fire department is handicapped. In the year 1897 the water system of Concord was owned by a private citizen who held a 25 year contract. An elevated tank on Main St. held 130,000 gallons of water when full. The water level was maintained by two pumps able to pump 800,000 gallons in twenty four hours between them. The population of the town was 5,000.

The fire department in 1897 consisted of two hose carts with 1,500 feet of hose and 3 nozzles 5/8 inch. One hook and ladder truck with 12 rubber buckets. 18 men total. How many black firemen at this point is not indicated in the source.

By 1902 the city was reworking the water system. The hook and ladder company and a hose company occupied a part of city hall. The hook and ladder company was manned by 30 black men while the other equipment was manned by 24 white firemen.

Aug. 10, 1911 Concord hosted the convention and tournament of the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association.

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DURHAM

Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company
Bart Barber is foreman and holds the trumpet of his office under his left arm.

With no real solid evidence to the contrary the Excelsior hook and ladder company was formed some time in the mid-eighteen eighties. An article in" The Tobacco Plant" reads "Mr. Samuel Thaxton desires to return thanks to the citizens of Durham, both white and colored, for their effort last Friday to save his residence from fire." This is dated March 17, 1881. The meetings of the Hook and Ladder Company were held the 1st Wednesday in the Mayor's office. The first documented foreman was Peyton Smith who operated a grocery store on Peabody St. He remained foreman for several years and later moved his grocery to the down town area on West Main street. The Tobacco Plant published an article November 17, 1887, praising the" colored hook and ladder company" for their timely efforts at a resent fire. They were sure to have been organized even before that but this is the earliest record found to this date.

The hook and ladder wagon was hand drawn in the beginning, with an unknown number of members, but was later about 16 or 18 men. In the month of January, 1894, the mayor gave a reception for them. Several of the leading white citizens as well as the fire chief, delivered speeches heaping praise on the company for the fine work they were doing. A promise was made to get horses for the wagon. The promise was made good and they soon had a pair of fine black horses named Frank and Bill and a stable on West Main Street to house the wagon.

The demands for service increased and the two white companies were up grading their equipment as well. The new fire station was built to house the #1 hose company and a need arose for more horses. The horses for the hook and ladder company were replaced by two mules named Rhoddy and Molly. Frank and Bill were moved to the No.2 hose wagon. Frank died some time later and a proper mate for Bill was never found he became one of the most famous horses in the state attending a number of conventions and tournaments of the white firemen. Capt. Turner, while relating stories about the early fire department remarked that the mules were no trouble to start when the driver stepped on the gong, but they were hard to stop. They didn't stay long and horses were again assigned to the hook and ladder. A pair of dark brown horses named Bill and Bob took the place of the mules. They served the company well until early one morning, while answering an alarm in the northern part of the town, Bob fell dead at the corner of Main and Roxboro.

Robert Ruffin, a black man, apparently had a way with horses for he became a member of hose company No.2, a white company, as a paid hostler. He went along with the white firemen to the state tournament and convention in Wilmington to care for Bill and Dixie. Dixie had torn a hoof in a practice run a few days earlier and needed special attention. A photograph taken in front of No.2 station in 1903 shows a black fire fighter in the seat of the steamer. This man is believed to be Robert Ruffin.


The same steam engine almost a century later now stand deteriorating in storage.

The city fathers had a hard time in their minds of letting good horse flesh stand idle. There was always someone trying to find a job for the horses when they were not actively pulling fire equipment. From time to time the horses were assigned to pull the sprinkler for wetting the streets to keep the dust down, or to some other duty. On one occasion when the horses were occupied an alarm of fire was sounded at a location more than a half mile from the station of the hook and ladder. Being very strong men the firemen pulled the wagon by hand the full distance. While reporting on an accident one of the local papers gave the weight of the wagon to be over two tons.

Accidents were common to both men and horses, some serious. On one occasion the hook and ladder was making a run down Main St. when fireman John Burnett attempted to get on the moving wagon. He lost his grip and was thrown to the ground with such force as to be rendered unconscious. It was first felt the injury was serious but after being taken to his home and placed in bed he regained consciousness and was fully recovered the next day. An almost identical accident involving one of the white firemen, Patrick Farthing was a little more serious. He was attempting to board the moving wagon and was being helped up by one of the black firefighters pulling at his shirt. the shirt tore and his grip failed throwing him under the wheel of the wagon, he was in a coma for about two days and it was feared that his foot was so damaged it would have to be amputated, however, he did recover.

Physical condition of these early fire fighters was superb due to the heavy labor most of them were involved in. A fire alarm in East Durham one afternoon drew the attention of Peyton Smith and Mack Lyon. Without hesitation they started running. They ran for a distance of more than a mile and arrived in time to assist in fighting the fire.

Excelsior, sponsored the tournament and convention of the Volunteer Fireman's Association in 1894 and again in 1907. Huge crowds attended and a great time was had by all. They loved a parade and were eager to join in for the open house celebrations on May 10th each year for the police and fire departments. It is rather ironic that the last parade they participated in was a celebration for the confederate veterans in 1912. Durham had gone to a paid fire department in March of 1909 and in 1912 the city purchased a building in back of the No. 1 station. Four hundred and eighty seven dollars was spent to raise the building high enough to accommodate the hook and ladder company. The hook and ladder company moved to the new station and was manned by white firemen. February 1913 found a delegation of black citizens with a petition, before the city fathers making a request for a retired hose wagon to be donated and used in Hayti, using black firemen. The request was referred to committee which reported back that a suitable lot for a fire station could not be found and the matter was never heard from again.

Finch Bumpass had replaced Payton Smith as foreman and was later replaced by Bart Barbee. Bart Barbee's photograph was identified by his grandson who remembered his uniform to be green with a black border. He was foreman of a crew of the water company and was paid seventy five cents a week extra to be a foreman of the fire company. The rest of the men of the water company that were also firemen were paid fifty cents a week extra. Several of the early firemen were freed slaves. Finch Bumpass died in August of 1912. Bart Barbee the last foreman was born February 25, 1856 nine years before emancipation and died September 20,1940 just eighteen years before the next black fire fighters were hired October 1958.


The grave marker for Bart Barbee is located in Cemetery, Durham, N.C. and the faint image of a trumpet can be seen on both sides of the name.
Photo by Chuck Milligan

Black career firefighters were proposed as early as 1949. “Council safety committee recommends that Negro personnel be trained as firemen” was the title of a Durham Morning Herald story on July 22, 1949. Reported the paper on July 29, City Council deferred that action. But approved motion to “augment Negro personnel on police force.”

Eight black firefighters hired in October 1958. They were George Washington King, Walter Thomas, Elgin Johnson, Velton Thompson, Robert Medlyn, John O. Lyon, Nathaniel Thompson, Sylvester Hall, Thomas Harris and Linwood Howard. They staffed a newly built Station 4 at Fayetteville and Pekoe Streets. The station opened October 1, 1958, and served predominately black Hayti neighborhoods. The company used "hand me down" equipment, including an older engine. By 1969, the entire Durham Fire Department was integrated, and the now ten members of Engine 4 were working at fire stations throughout Durham.

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EAST SPENCER

East Spencer is a young town compared to most cities in North Carolina. The modern counter part would be called a bed room community. East Spencer is where it is because of Spencer. Spencer sprung up almost over night as a result of the Southern Railroad Shops being built here. It all began just prior to 1900. East Spencer became the town across the tracks. The white fire company of Spencer had already made a name for its self by winning races in the state tournaments and being invited to the worlds fair in St. Louis. When water lines were installed in East Spencer in 1910 Bob Jones and C.A. Sides organized a fire department with Jones as Chief and Sides as assistant. They were not ready to take a back seat to the folks across the track, and became the team to reckon with at the state tournaments, bringing home prize money from the annual events, with record breaking times for the grab reel contest. In 1928 they broke the world record for the grab reel contest with 16 1/5 seconds and two years later set a new record of 16 seconds flat. After getting the white fire company established in 1911, Jones and Sides helped L.L. Iddings organize an all black reel company.

By 1913 the white company had 19 members and black company 17 men each manning a two wheel hand drawn hose reel with 550 feet of 2 1/2 " hose. The population of East Spencer at this time was about 3,000. Two miles of water main of 4" to 6" size supplied 40 hydrants, the water coming from near by Salisbury. The White Rose reel company of East Spencer was soon established as one of the teams to beat at the annual tournament of the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association. They too brought home a number of prizes. They earned their reputation through hard work and many hours of training. Each evening in the cooler days they could be found "running the reels". This was an activity that the whole community took interest in. Children gathered to watch the firemen as they ran their drills over and over. What a great place for a child to grow up. The firemen not only set a good example in their work at the train shops but in their civic duties as well. East Spencer hosted the tournaments on several occasions finding room for the visiting firemen in their homes. Mack Jones of Oxford smiled as he talked of going to" Spencer" for the meetings, it was easy to know this was one of his favorite towns.

By the end of 1930 the white fire company consisted of a chief, an assistant chief, a captain and 20 men all part paid with two fire stations and one unpaid volunteer, while the colored organization had an assistant chief and two men who were part paid and 13 volunteers with no pay. The white fire companies had a Dodge purchased in 1924 and a model T Ford truck. The black fire company was still running the hand reel from station number three. The annual meetings of the firemen and later the ladies auxiliary was an event they all looked forward to. Mrs. Abernathy recalls that one of her neighbors purchased a new yellow Cadillac to drive to the 1977 meeting "down east". Just a few of the members of later years that Mrs. Abernathy could recall were, Sylvester Holmes, Sylvester Turner, Sam Witherspoon, Robert Washington and of course James Abernathy her husband.

There is some talk of organizing the reel teams again. What a great sport this would be, and what a great example for the young children to once again watch the firemen train with the reels. Could it be the sport of the future? THE RUNNING OF THE REELS.  

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EDENTON


Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Archives N 68 10 63

This photo of the Edenton Hose Company may have been made between 1910 and 1920. Documents show a Colored Hook and Ladder company in 1920 with 8 men. The photo above is of a hose wagon. In 1910 there were three hose reels and a hook and ladder wagon with three companies of eight men in each company. In 1898 the only fire equipment listed was a hand Hook and Ladder wagon. With no other equipment listed its is likely buckets were carried on this wagon.

Sanborn Maps from August 1920 maps describe the fire department as "Volunteer. Three companies of eight men each. Three hose reel carts with 300 feet 2 1/2-inch hose on each. One supply cart with 250 feet 2 1/2-inch hose. One 40-gallon chemical engine. Colored hook and ladder company with truck and 60-feet of ladders. Fire alarm by bell at courthouse and whistle at water works." By the January 1927 map, the fire department is described as "Volunteer, one chief and sixteen men, all partly paid." There is one fire station, a motorized pumper, and hand reel and hook and ladder in reserve. Earlier maps, from January 1910 and January 1904, list volunteer firemen, but without information on race.

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ELIZABETH CITY


Andrew W. Williams last surviving member of the Quick Step Hook and Ladder Company

The Quick Step Hook and Ladder was organized in 1891. Some twelve years would pass before a municipal water supply would be established. Quick Step was an elite group of men who guarded membership in their organization closely. John Williams was one of the early organizers and some member of his family has served on the department from the beginning.

Rescue and ventilation was the area of expertise in which they operated. The capability of demolishing threatened structures was also a part of their duty and the hooks they used are today in a museum.

After the water system was functional two steam engines were purchased and manned by white firemen. The hose company was manned by whites as well. By 1914 fourteen white fire fighters and forty colored men made up the fire department. The equipment was housed in one building and when the alarm sounded they all gathered at the same fire house to respond.

Sanborn Map of 1914:
 

 
Sanborn Map of 1923:
 


Quick Step Band 1908


Quick Step Band 1919

The horse drawn hook and ladder was replaced by a solid tire chain drive Brockway Hook and Ladder about 1921 and this was the first line ladder truck until 1950. By 1923 the chief was a full paid position and three white drivers were also paid. There were 22 white volunteers and the black company of 12 volunteers had a paid driver.

As members of the NCCVFA the Quick Step company also maintained a band that participated at the conventions and tournaments. Not all of the band members were firemen and in a 1919 photo of the band there are forty-one members.

In 1977 all of the fire companies determined it was time to merge their manpower and the all black company gave way to an integrated department. One of the oldest living members of the all black unit stated in an interview that he felt over the years they had been “treated fairly and squarely”

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ENFIELD

Sanborn Map from 1909:
 

 
Sanborn Map from 1915:
 

 
Sanborn Maps from June 1921 describe the fire department as consisting of twenty colored volunteers who were paid a nominal salary. The fire station was located at 124 Main Street and equipment included "one old-style Howe gasoline engine, capacity about 250 gallons per minute, fair condition only. One hand-drawn hose reel with 300 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose. One hook and ladder truck with 25-foot extension ladder." The fire alarm was sounded by factory whistle and telephone.
 


Some of the delegates to the 1961 convention on the North Carolina Volunteer Fireman's Association in Enfield, N.C.

Shown above, left to right front row. Robert Coleman, Warrenton, Cleveland Anderson, Warrenton, L.R. Barnes., Greenville, Luther Tuck, Wake Forest, D. A. Willis, Oxford, on the right end James Plummer, Warrenton. Back Row left to right John Bizzel, Greenville, McCarroll Alston Warrenton, O.C. Smith, Wake forest, L.H. Hall, Salisbury.


Other delegates Enfield 1961

Photos by Kilebrew Studios Rocky Mount, Courtesy Charles Kilebrew

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FARMVILLE

Farmville and the other cities in the coastal plain maintained their black firefighters much longer than did the departments in the Piedmont and the Mountains. Farmville has never been a large industrial city but has always had an active fire department. The black fire company there consisted of 12 men but they were able to host the convention and tournament in the 30s. The history of this company has been preserved and will be updated in the future.

Sanborn Maps describe the following:

September 1915
Volunteer, three hose companies with fifteen white and twelve "negro men." One hook and ladder company of four men. Three reels and 1500 feet two-and-a-half-inch hose. One hand-drawn hook and ladder truck. Fire alarm bell. Twenty-five double hydrants.
 


April 1923
Volunteer, thirty-two, one paid driver, one paid chief. Department fully motorized. Gamewell electric fire alarm system. Thirteen boxes. Alarm direct to power plant whistle. Fifteen call boxes "in transit" to be installed by May 15, 1923. Will transmit alarm directly from boxes. Also, one sixteen-inch mechanical gong to be installed on Wilson and Main Streets. Fifty-five double hydrants.

Station 1 with twenty men (volunteers). Triple combination American LaFrance pump, chemical, and hose car. 750 GPM pump capacity. 60 gallon chemical extinguisher and 1000 feet two-and-a-half-inch C.R.L. hose (new). 1000 feet two-and-a-half-inch C.R.L. hose in reserve (good condition).

Station 2 with twelve men (colored volunteers). One Ford hose truck with 1000 feet four-inch C.R.L. hose, 1000 feet C.R.L. hose in reserve (good condition).

 
 
May 1929
Station 2 has twelve men, colored volunteers, equipped with one Chevrolet truck with 800 feet two-and-a-half-inch hose.
 


December 1937
Station 2 has twelve "colored volunteers" and a Chevrolet truck with 800 feet two-and-a-half inch hose.
 

 

FAYETTEVILLE


Monument dedicated to W D. McNeill, one of the founders and longtime President of the North Carolina State Fireman's Association.

The Cape Fear river was the center of trade in the early life of Fayetteville. Paddle Wheelers plied the river as a quick way to move farm products to markets far away. There was also a lively trade in slaves prior to the War Between the States. As early as the mid 1700s fire was beginning to be a problem for this blossoming community. Accounts of whole cities being consumed by fire led everyone to be ever watchful for anything that could spark a blaze. The colonist had learned early on that it was everyone's responsibility to be prepared to give their best effort at the outbreak any fire. The year 1831 was to prove disastrous, a fire almost destroyed the town.

Hand engines were in use in 1847 when authorization was given to purchase two lots on Gillespie Street on which to build an engine house. On June 24th ,1848, the commanding officers of the two engine companies and the hook and ladder company were permitted to enlist twenty five black men in each company to work the engines. and to help with the ladders. They were to be given proper hats or caps at public expense, to show which company they belong to. Their owners had to give permission for them to serve and the firemen were to be compensated at the judgment of the Chief Fire Warden.

By December, 1884 the black firefighters had become well established and operated the two hand engines. The white firefighters manned the hook and ladder truck and the bucket company. Reservoirs or cisterns were dug in several areas of the city and pipes laid to connect them, hydrants were also installed at each location. A Silsby Steam Engine had been acquired and a Silsby pump ran by a turbine furnished water to the mains and hydrants. The choice of using a stream straight from the hydrant or using the hydrant to keep the reservoir filled was made by the first arriving unit. The steamer would draft from the reservoir.

The black fire company distinguished themselves for a number of years attending the state conventions and tournaments. In 1947 C.R. Miller was serving as president of the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association. Fayetteville opted to form a paid fire department in this year. The plans for a paid department did not include black firefighters. C.R. Miller, along with seven other black firefighters wrote a letter to the fire committee which is reproduced below. As a result of this letter the black fire company was given $150.00 a year to continue training Accounts of the demise of the black fire company have yet to be found, they apparently faded away with out notice.

Black fire fighters on parade probably in Fayetteville.

J.W. Archie

Well-Known Negro Is Traffic Victim

The black flag hung from the First Citizens Bank building today as the week-end produced the first traffic death in Cumberland County in more than two months. J.W. "Will" Archie, 66, of 912 Ellis Street, a very well-known Negro resident, died Sunday afternoon at 5:30 o'clock of injuries sustained when he was struck late Saturday night on Bragg Boulevard by a car driven by Charles Dawkins, 116 Ruth Street. Archie suffered a fractured leg and a head injury. He had been employed for years at the incinerator by the City of Fayetteville and had worked at Breece's Banquet Hall until several months ago. More recently he had been engaged in the horseshoeing business and had a small shop in the rear of the Rogers and Breece funeral home on Bow Street. Archie's death saddened the convention for many of the local firemen as he was an old-time member of the Fayetteville Volunteer company and recently had been engaged in shining and getting ready for display the old horse-drawn pumping engine of the local department. He is the 19th person to die in 1948 as the result of a traffic accident in Cumberland County. Witnesses to the accident said Mr. Dawkins was not to blame. He was driving approximately 35 miles per hour in a line of traffic returning from the baseball game when Archie is said to have stepped in front of the car while attempting to cross Bragg Boulevard near the Ames Street intersection.

Statements absolving Mr. Dawkins were made to the investigating police by I.B. Julian, E.B. Bates and W.D. Hyman. Coroner J.W. Pinkston said an inquest would not be necessary. Archie was the first person to lose his life in a traffic accident since the current safety campaign was started. The last previous fatal traffic accident occurred June 6. Archie is survived by one son, John William Archie, Jr.; by one daughter, Laura Williams of Rock Hill, S.C.; by four brothers, Charlie Archie of Winston-Salem, James Archie of Greensboro, Henry Archie of Baltimore and Hope Archie of Vandermere, N.C.; by three grandchildren and number of niece and nephews. He came to Fayetteville 50 years ago from Winston-Salem and for years was employed at the C.L. Bevill stable where the courthouse now stands. When the stables were removed, he became a popular drayman and driver for the Fayetteville fire department. As a fireman he trained under the late Capt. James McNeill. When trucks replaced fire horses, he was employed by the city sanitary department and was in charge of the abattoir and incinerator. After his retirement he was employed at Breece's Landing. He was a faithful member of Evans Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion church, a member of the board of stewards, the usher board and the Boy Scout committee. Funeral services will be conducted Thursday afternoon at 5 o'clock from that church and Rev. D.I.W. McInnis and burial will be in Cross Creek cemetery.

Active pallbearers will be Baker Plummer and Harvey Brown of Warrenton, Julian Lyon of Enfield, Charles Monroe, Jim McLean, B.C. Morgan, Cicero Miller and Sam Drake, all of Fayetteville. Honorary pallbearers will be members of the Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Department, both white and colored, and members of the paid fire department.

The Fayetteville Observer
Monday, August 9, 1948 Page 1

Editor's Note: Although the above article listed Archie as G.W. Archie, he is listed as John William Archie Sr. in the County Vital Records. He was the son of John W. Archie.

This obituary was contributed by Daisy Maxwell, Librarian of The Fayetteville Observer.

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GOLDSBORO

Goldsboro is still in question.

Colored firefighters were present in Goldsboro as early as 1879. That year, they and colored firefighters from Charlotte and Warrenton traveled to visit colored firefighters in Raleigh. Source: Observer, July 16, 1879.

GREENSBORO

Photo courtesy of Archives Division, Greensboro Historical Museum
1981.6370

The Excelsior reel team and possibly at least one other black fire company served Greensboro for several years. When a newspaper published an article about modern day black firefighters being the first black firefighters in Greensboro an older citizen stepped forward to make a correction. Elam Harper had known these early firefighters from the beginning of their organization and was quick to set the record straight. Other than the above photo little has been done to research and preserve the history of this fire company.

The first career firefighters were hired in 1961. Twenty-eight were hired, comprising the largest academy of new firefighters in city's history. They staffed a newly built Station 4 at 401 Gorrell Street. They staffed Engine 4 and a new ladder company, Truck 4. In or after 1966, the entire Greensboro Fire Department was integrated. On April 12, 1966, the city's Human Relations Commission presented a plan to City Council to integrate all fire stations.

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GREENVILLE

Sanborn Maps from May 1896 listed this information about Greenville:

Fire department - Volunteer - One combination hand fire engine, one hook & ladder truck, one hose reel 1000 feet 2 1/2-inch hose. Forty [white] members. Forty colored members with hook & ladder truck. 
 


Subsequent maps do not mention race. The next map, dated March 1898, listed this information:

Fire department has seventy-two "volunteer men." One LaFrance steam engine, one hand reel, one hook and ladder truck, one combination chemical and water hand engine (Howes), and other equipment.

In 1899, the proceedings of the North Carolina State Firemen's Association mentioned three colored fire companies operating in Greenville:

Head Hawk Fire Company
Hope Fire Company
Rough and Ready Fire Company.

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HENDERSON

Henderson sent two black fire companies to the 1906 convention and tournament in Winston.

Colored fire company members also attended the 1897 convention. Source: Newspaper articles. A colored fire company from Henderson called Enterprise attended the 1904 convention. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1904.

LINCOLNTON

There is no question that Lincolnton had a black fire company for a number of years but that information is not available at this time.

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LOUISBURG

The story of Louisburg is a bit unusual as there was only one piece of equipment available and both black and white firefighters rode the same piece of equipment as volunteers for several years in the first part of the 20th century.

The history of Louisburg's colored fire company has been researched and documented by Al Peoples and Larry Peoples, in their book The Louisburg Fire Department: A History, self-published in 2012.

The company was originally named the Louisburg Hose and Reel Company and also called the Louisburg Colored Fire Company and the Louisburg Colored Fire Department.

It was formed in 1931 and operated as a "separate unit of the Louisburg Fire Department." The company held "their own monthly business and dinner meetings," originally at the Lodge Hall on West River Road and in later years at Otha Wilson's Automotive Repair Shop on Bunn Road. In those later years, Mr. Wilson was the captain of the colored fire company.
 
Though the company did some of their own training, most of their training was "in conjunction with the main fire department." The company joined the other firemen at the fire station, and "the groups participated together in whatever training was provided."
 
In the "early days," the company lacked the same equipment as the "main department." They didn't have the same quality of turnout gear, or a "telephone or pager alarm system." Through the years, however, their equipment improved and "ultimately every fireman in the department was equally equipped."
 
The colored fire company operated independently administratively, but when responding to fire calls, "all of the fireman worked together, supported each other, and did the best possible job of protecting the lives and property of the citizens of Louisburg."
 
On August 4, 1931, the first discussion of a colored fire company was recorded in the minutes of the town council. Fire Chief J. S. Howell "suggested to the Board that a Colored Fire Company be organized with headquarters in South Louisburg. [He] stated that this would not only be a great assistance to the Louisburg Fire Department, but it would possibly lower the fire insurance rates [in town] [and by] and amount greater than the cost of the upkeep of a Colored Reel Team." Chief Howell was instructed by the council to "thoroughly investigate the above proposal and present an estimate of the expenses of a Colored Fire Company" at a future meeting.
 
On August 10, 1931, the Franklin Times reported that the fire company had been officially organized. "A colored reel team, as an auxiliary to the Louisburg Fire Department, was organized by Chief J. S. Howell, on Monday night [August 10] with the following members: R. M. Williams, John King, Harry Hill, Walter Murray, Ed Gill, Thomas Williams, Willie Harris, John Henry Stallings, Jack Hayes, and Morris Brown. This company will be equipped at an early date with reel and hose and other necessary equipment and [be] stationed on the south side of the Tar River. A more complete organization awaits the return of the members and deletes of the fire department from the Firemen's Tournament [and convention] to be held at Tarboro beginning August 18."
 
The location of the fire company was likely the "hose storage station" on Kenmoor Avenue shown on Sanborn Insurance Maps in 1922. That year, the map describe the fire department as having one American LaFrance triple combination motor truck, 750 GPM, 40 gallon chemical tank, and 1500 feet two-and-a-half inch hose. Plus 1000 feet of hose in reserve. Plus 500 feet of hose on a hand reel on Kenmoor Avenue. The fire alarm was a siren on a Market Street Building. The town had thirty-seven double hydrants.

The map of 1930 shows the fire station at 317 Bull Run Alley, at the south end of Market Street. The two-story building was located beside the jail.
 
The next mention in the town minutes of the fire company was at the August 6, 1931, meeting. The Town Council was requested to pay for the dues, so the company could become members of the "State Colored Fire Association." The board's clerk was instructed to pay $7.50 to the secretary of the state association.
 
On April 5, 1932, the colored fire company responded to a fire in the rear of home of Mrs. Pattie Pittman on east Nash Street. They found a pile of trash ablaze. The account was reported in the Franklin Times, and noted that the fire company was "stationed on South Main Street."
 
During the September 5, 1941, meeting of the town council, the following motion was made: "That the Colored Fire Company be given the [National Guard] auditorium free of charge, for the purpose of holding a dance for the benefit of the Colored Fire Company." The proceeds of this event were not mentioned, but likely to be used to "purchase turnout gear or other equipment."
 
On November 5, 1965, the Fire Chief and Mr. Robert Lee Harris appeared before the town council, to discuss equipment for the fire company. The motion was carried that the Town Administrator investigate the "cost of twelve coats."
 
Minutes of the town council also showed that money typically appropriated each year, so the company could send delegates to the state convention. This is documented for most years from 1931 until 1966, the year that the colored fire company merged with the "main department."
 
The colored fire company twice played host to the state organization's annual convention. The event was held in Louisburg in 1963 and again in the mid-1980s.
 
On October 6, 1986, the Louisburg Fire Department and the Louisburg Colored Fire Department were merged. At a fire department meeting on that date, "a motion was made and passed to consolidate the black and white companies into one company." The change was effective immediately, and both groups would "have their dinner and business meeting together at the next monthly meeting."

 

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MONROE

Photo by Chuck Milligan

The McShane foundry must have been one of the few bell makers on the east coast. This bell and several others of the same style hang as a lasting memory of the times when this was the clarion that rousted fire fighters from their warm beds to face the red demon and the elements.

News accounts from Monroe are almost non existent. Information about their black fire fighters has all but disappeared. One account in recent years from The Enquirer-Journal, Wednesday, February 25, 1976 featured James Blount as the last surviving black fire fighter. It was a brief article but did name others who had served.

The earliest documents are from the council minutes of April 4, 1898. The Council approved the purchase of a bucket, a dipper and an oil can for the colored fire department. The purpose of the bucket and dipper are not stated but this was a common item in most households in this era and was used for drinking water. A common dipper for all occupants and visitors to drink from.

In 1902 Monroe had 35 white firemen and 25 black. The black company manned a Hook and Ladder Wagon. By 1914 the number had not changed while records for 1922 show the number down to 12 men and probably still manning the Hook and Ladder.

The convention of the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association held in Monroe in August, 1901 as well as, August 20, 1929. The 1936 convention was held in Wilmington, this was the last meeting attended by the Monroe fire fighters. From the information developed it appears the fire company served Monroe for a period of about 38 years.

A list of names of black firefighters having served Monroe are included in the appendix. There are as many as ninety names listed. The compiler of the list also gave the occupation of each of the members. This included a number of mill workers, several railroad workers, barbers, an undertaker, a store owner as well as a number of city employees. The occupations were diverse but they had a common unity in their desire to serve the community, spending countless hours of their "free" time practicing on Lancaster Street. The location was between two schools where a fire hydrant was convenient.

Monroe won the bid for the convention for 1929. The economy was still good and the crash was coming in the near future but no one knew this at this time. This would be a great event for the city and for the fire fighters. Arrangements were made for 350 visitors to stay in private homes. A number of cities had lost their black fire fighters such as , Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Wilmington and Raleigh. The requirement for lodging had been greater in earlier years.

As in the past the convention was to be held in August. This year it was to begin on Tuesday August 20. The traditional parade was to" form Wednesday morning on Winchester Ave. at the High School. From this point it would go to the Oil Mill, follow that to Highway 20, and by Charles St. to Houston, thence to Church . Up Church Street to Jefferson , thence around the square and to the C.M.E. Church. "

The races were to be held on Wednesday and Thursday with the singing contest on Wednesday night. An admission charge of twenty five cents was charged for the singing. Quartets were billed from Concord, Wilson, Winston-Salem, Farmville, East Spencer, Enfield, Statesville, Tarboro, Oxford, Greenville and Monroe.

The opening session was held at The Mount Calvary A.M.E. Zion Church on Tuesday evening, August 20, 1929. There was singing, speaking, more music and more speeches. The State Fire Marshall , Sherwood Brockwell addressed the group, The Mayor spoke the Fire Chief G.B. Caldwell spoke they took up a collection and they prayed. This was a well planned event. Prof. J.N. Brown served as Master of Ceremony.

The Parade was a huge success and was over a mile long. Fire fighting equipment, floats and decorated automobiles along with bands made up the procession.

All of the officers were re-elected with Colonel C.S.L.A. Taylor of Charlotte remaining president.

Herman Cunningham was a very valuable resource in Monroe. 

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MOREHEAD CITY 

The neighboring town of Beaufort had organized a fire department consisting of both black and white firemen. As time for organizing a fire department arrived in Morehead City a call went out for volunteers both black and white to come together for that purpose. For some unknown reason the black community did not respond. Some time before this an unusual event occurred that merits inclusion in this document.

On May 18, 1906, the town commissioners passed a resolution to purchase a new fire engine and fire equipment. Upon delivery of the hand-drawn gasoline-powered Howe engine, Mayor C. S. Wallace was instructed to organize both a white and colored fire department. The colored citizens never organized, but the white citizens organized a fire department within a few months. Source: Pictorial History of Morehead City, 1714-1981, Terrydale Printing Company, Greenville, NC, 1982.

NEW BERNE

The second oldest city in North Carolina would be expected to have a rich history, and it does. The native Indians favored the area of the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers for hunting and fishing. The Iraqis traveled each year from near the Canadian border to meet other groups at this favorite spot. Is it any wonder that when the white man arrived he could not resist this same area for these reasons.

Lawsons Journal, was a source of encouragement to many to try to make their fortune in the fertile soil around New Berne. Of course the contest for possession of the virgin land was won by the white invaders either by deception or by force. Christoph Von Graffenried is considered to be the founder of New Bern. There were others that came before his group but it was his intent to establish a town and he did. Graffenried was a compassionate and forthright person who attempted to treat the Indians fairly. Should all of these early colonist had the respect for the Indians that he did our history would be completely different. After a great number of lives were lost because of mans greed and disrespect for one another the town was finally established. At one point the colony was at the point of starvation. Graffenried had exhausted most of his funds but continued to care for the inhabitants. He had left New Berne in search of supplies to sustain the group. In Bath he was able to secure enough provisions to tide them over for some time. Among the supplies was a quantity of tobacco, powder and lead. The crew that was responsible for the cargo drank a little to much and as a result were not fully alert. A spark from a stove in the galley of the ship popped out and ignited some tobacco near by. The crew in fear of the powder exploding abandoned the ship and its cargo. The fire did reach the powder and all of the provisions were lost.

At times the Indians would decide they had enough of the white man and go on the war path. Fire was one of their major weapons during these times as they burned homes and animal shelters. The Indians were not the only ones to use fire as a weapon . Graffenried told of a group of English settlers who once captured an Indian chief and roasted him alive. Graffenried abhorred this type of behavior and signed a truce with the Indians declaring his group of Switzers to be neutral in affairs of war. This did in some ways help the colony to establish a hold on the city.

Chapter xxix of 1766 page 507 Laws of North Carolina "An Act for confirming a lease made by the Tuscarora Indians to Robert Jones, jun., William Williams and Thomas Pugh, Esquires." In essence states that the Indians wanted to move to the area of the Susquehanna River needed funds to make the move and for that reason in 1756 leased the land to the three gentlemen named in the heading for a sum of one thousand five hundred pound proclamation money

The names of the Indians signing were listed as," James Allen, John Wiggins, Billy George, Snip Nose George, Billy Cain, Charles Cornelius, Thomas Blount, John Rogers, George Blount, Wineoak Charles, Billy Basket, Billy Owen, Lewis Tuffdick, Isaac Miller, Harry, Samuel Bridges, Thomas Seneca, Thomas Howit, Billy Sockey, Billy Cornelius, John Seneca, Thomas Basket, John Cain, Billy Dennis, William Taylor, Owens, John Walker, Billy Mitchell, Billy Netop, Billy Blount, Tom Jack, John Lightwood, Billy Roberts, James Mitchell, Captain Joe, and William Pugh."

This same publication chapter xix of 1773 deals with fire protection and prevention. " 1. Whereas from the great increase of Buildings in the Town of New Bern, Damages may hereafter arise by Fire; and it appearing necessary that water Engines, and other Instruments for extinguishing Fire, be procured as soon as Possible" --a discussion of taxes follows and then continues--"may be equally proportioned to the Danger they may be subject to by Fire; which Money assessed on the Owners of Houses and residents as aforesaid, shall be collected and applied towards purchasing a Water Engine, Buckets, Ladders, and other Instruments proper for extinguishing Fire, and erecting one or more Public Pumps; -------and as soon as such Engine, and other instruments for extinguishing Fire as aforesaid, shall be procured, it shall and may be lawful for said Commissioners or a Majority of them, to appoint and establish a Fire Company to manage and work the said Engine."

From the information available New Bern has a most unique fire department. Prior to the War Between the States, as has already been mentioned , New Bern had struggled to maintain a fire department. At the outbreak of the conflict all of the able bodied men either joined in the conflict or fled the invading Yankee army. This left the town without a fire department. No documentation is available but surely the invading Yankees took advantage of any fire equipment they found to protect their own stores and supplies.

During the course of the conflict there was a flood of black refugees into New Bern. The great numbers began to overwhelm the resources of the occupying force. A refugee camp was established across the river from New Bern to accommodate them. The city was named after the person designated to care for them thus James City was born. This was probably the first all black city to be established on this continent. Some time later Princeville and even later Soul City was established.

"There is, perhaps, no other city in the United States where such conditions exist for the pleasant home as in New Berne. ------"she was deservedly named the Athens of North Carolina."

After the conflict ended the Yankees were free to return home but for some this town was more attractive than the cold winters of the north. A number of them determined to remain in the sunny south. During the war the northern troops apparently had some connection to fire departments in the north. They were able to obtain from some northern department a piece of equipment and organize a fire company. This hand pump probably was of the type with brakes on both sides requiring sixteen men to operate it. This unit served for about four years until the men persuaded the governing body to purchase a steam engine. Several other fire companies were organized from time to time including the Independent Colored Fire Company, Reliance Engine Company No 1, and Rough and Ready Hook and Ladder Fire Co. The colored fire companies must have been viable units for they hosted the state convention of The North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association in 1909

"The Colored Fireman's Association held their regular session yesterday, transacting such routine business as came before the body. Among the special business was voting a resolution of thanks to the people of New Bern for their hospitality, and to the railroads for their courteous treatment. Twenty five companies are reported in attendance from places, the names of most of which were given in yesterdays paper, some towns sent two companies.

The parade yesterday was of great length and really impressive. The floats were tastefully decorated and occupied by girls who sang patriotic songs appropriate to the occasion. There were but little apparatus in line, but the few hose reels and wagons looked neat and substantial. The firemen made a good appearance also. There were upwards of five hundred of them, all dressed in the uniforms, and wearing the colors of the different companies.

The tournament has attracted hundreds of visitors, and the hospitality of the colored citizens is taxed to the utmost to provide accommodations for all."

"Thursday was the big day of the colored firemen's tournament. The town was literally full of people. Three thousand visitors was the estimate, and it was not far from correct."---------

Yesterday ended the business of the convention, about all the officers were re-elected; President, J.S. Plummer, Warrenton,; Treasurer, J.J. Lattie, Winston-Salem; Financial Secretary, L.L.A. (sic) Taylor , Charlotte."

In the early years there were five fire companies in New Bern , three white companies and two black companies. The black companies were the Reliance Engine Company Number One, William Jones Foreman, William H. Jones, Assistant Foreman, W.W. Lawrence Jr., Secretary, and Merrit Whitley, Treasurer. The Rough and Ready Hook and Ladder Company with J.W. Willis, Foreman and Thomas Harris, Assistant Foreman.

Fred the fire horse has been mentioned earlier. Fred pulled the Atlantic Hose Company hose wagon for 17 years. Fred's driver John Tylor was a black man, they worked as a team until John's death. Two weeks after John died Fred also dropped dead while answering a false alarm.

Newbern, New Berne, or New Bern by what ever name has a rich and diverse history worthy of preservation. During the Yankee occupation numerous photographs were made by the Union Army. They are in the National Archives, available to future generations.

The New Bern Fire Museum is a fine example and has a number of high quality artifacts. 

Sanborn Map of 1904:
 

 
Sanborn Map of 1908:


 

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OXFORD

Mack Jones

Oxford is a good example of needing a water supply in order to fight fire. An article in an August 18, 1905 publication. While discussing the progress that Oxford is making states," The Oxford Water and Electric Co has been testing the water supply. With the new tank only partially filled there is enough water to put out a fire in the tallest building in Oxford". The test was conducted on Hillsboro St., near the Opera House. Many homes are taking advantage of the new company and installing electric lighting. They also have a new ice plant, and now with the water supply they can organize a fire department.

By this date three new companies have formed and Mr. S.M. Wheeler is named chief. (he also delivers ice) . Mr. WA. Parham is elected foreman of reel company #1. Mr. Robert Wood foreman of the Hook and Ladder company with Frank Spence as his assistant. Reel company #2 is a colored company with Mr. Ed Shelton as foreman and James Davis as his assistant.

Reel company #2 has taken the name Sixth Ward hose company. Two years later they attend the 1907 tournament and convention held in Durham. There is no information available of the number attending or their names. The Sanborn Map of 1915 lists fire department equipment as two hose reels and a hook and ladder wagon with 85 feet of ladders plus a 15 foot hook ladder. (roof ladder? ). All of the equipment is pulled by men . The Sixth Ward reel company acquired a Model T Ford truck in 1922, loaded with 1200 ft. of 2½ hose and two five gallon fire extinguishers. Other equipment in the department was a hook and ladder with 100 ft of ladders and two hose reels used by both black and white firefighters on a first come basis. Only one station accommodated both black and white firefighters but meeting were held at different times. They worked side by side at the fire scene but returned to the fire station separately.

Mack Jones, was a member of the black fire company for several years beginning in the 20s and staying until they disband.. Mack had a clear recollection of some matters but others were hazy at the time of the interview June 30, 1995.

Mack is not a tall man, slender and very agile in his younger years. One of his peers remarked that he remembered Mack dropping what ever he was doing , at the sound of the fire alarm and racing to the fire house at top speed. He enjoyed the annual meetings and tournaments of the state organization. Mack participated in the ladder races. He was sought by the firefighters from Weldon to round out their team at one of the tournaments. They needed a climber. Mack competed with both teams working equally as hard for them both.

When discussing the relationship between the races in the fire department Mack felt all was well until an accident involving their company. The Model T truck had been traded for a Model A. This truck was much faster than the older one. James Hunt was driving on one occasion when Gus Burwell fell from the truck while making a turn. Gus struck the curb with quite a force and was seriously injured. He did not receive treatment at the time of the accident but continued to be "sickly" and later died. It was never determined if his injury was the cause of death but one of the white fire fighters made a remark "we a supposed to save people not kill them.". This statement upset the black firefighters and they held one more meeting but never fought another fire. It was not so much the remark that caused the problem but the individual making the remark. He was not considered friendly to the black firefighters.

There is not a complete roster of all the men who served Oxford but Mack remembered , William Chavis, Tom Apple, James Hunt, Dan Willis, Langston "Lank" Daniels, John Mayo, Bunion Shamly (Brian Chambrey?), Scott Burwell, Willie Thorton, Leonard White, Charlie Harris, Tom Allen, Lee Fuller Prince, Albert Harris and John Mayo as well as Gus Burwell and himself Mack Jones names from other sources are W.M. Howerton, Thomas Lewis, Frank Royster, (W.M. Burwell could be Gus or Scott?)Sam Owens, Alex Peace, Dave Marrow and Saul Taylor.

The only fireman who died in the line of duty was Scott Burwell, a member of the colored company in 1935. Burwell fell from the running board on the way to a fire, and he died from his injuries. The colored company dissolved in the 1940s, when many men left to fight in the war and the company never reorganized. Source: Oxford Fire Company, Insert in the Daily Dispatch, August 17 and 21, 2005.
 
Sanborn Map of 1909:
 


Sanborn Map of 1915



Sanborn Map of 1922:
 


Sanborn Map of 1928:


 

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PRINCEVILLE

Princeville was established in 1865 by freed slaves had an all black fire volunteer fire company sometime in the late 1800's.

RALEIGH

James H. Jones
Photo Courtesy of Department of Archives, North Carolina, N53 15. 5203

Being the capitol city of North Carolina does not exempt it from fire. Many devastating fires plagued Raleigh in its infancy. Several fire companies formed and later disband. A hose company composed of black fire fighters was organized in 1869.

One of those assisting in putting the organization together was James H. Jones. Jones had been born a free black in 1831. He was not formally educated but relied on experience . Jones worked as a brick mason and plasterer in his youth and in order to maintain himself he hired out as gentleman's servant and waiter in the winter months of 1850.

In the summer of 1862 the Yankee's were threatening Richmond, and Jefferson Davis sent his wife and family to Raleigh to keep them out of harms way. Jones was hired to serve the Davis family while in Raleigh. Later that year Mrs. Davis and her children returned to Richmond taking Jones with them.

Jones served the president of the confederacy as courier and coachman until the end of the war. He was driving the president at the time of his capture and arrest near Irwinsville Ga. He accompanied Davis to Fortress Monroe , Va. before returning home to Raleigh.

In 1868 Jones was appointed head door keeper for the North Carolina Constitutional Convention. Later that same year he was appointed deputy sheriff of Wake County and held that post until 1876.

The hose company that Jones helped organize was chartered by the state legislature in 1872. He was elected foreman and served in that capacity until 1882.

A black bucket company had been organized sometime prior to September 13, 1877 for on that date The Weekly Register gave an account of a fire in the kitchen of Mr. Z.W. Gill on Person St. that was burned down on Wednesday last. The dwelling was saved through the exertions of the colored bucket company. This was apparently a kitchen separated from the dwelling house, which was the custom of that time .

The Victor Hose Company, which Jones helped organized served the city of Raleigh for a number of years. In the 1880s the Victor Hand Engine company and the bucket and ladder company were housed in Metropolitan Hall. The bucket company gave way to more modern equipment and the hand engine and hose company continued to serve until motorized equipment was introduced

The first company of colored firefighters in Raleigh was formed by January 27, 1869. They were named Fire Company No. 1 and operated an early 1851 hand engine. On October 20, 1870, the fire company participated in a presentation competition of hand engines at the 10th annual State Fair. They were the winners and were subsequently called the Victor Fire Company in the following days' newspaper accounts.  They were described as having about 40 members and with new uniforms that consisted of black pants, red shirts trimmed with blue, and black belts and blue caps trimmed to match the other parts of their uniform. The Victor Company received a charter from the General Assembly on January 23, 1872. The incorporators were James H. Jones, H. C. Jones, H. P. Buncombe, John E. Williams, W. B. Mitchell, Charles M. Hunter, Samuel Stewart, Sylvester Dunston. They were housed in the basement of Metropolitan Hall after the building opened on May 17, 1870. The Victor Company received a new Rumsey & Company hand engine after June 1874.
 
Before the formation of the NCCVFA and the accompanying state conventions, the Victors traveled to cities such as Charlotte, Wilmington, and New Bern in the early 1880s. After November 6, 1885, the Victor hand engine was drawn by horses. On March 1, 1890, the Victor Company received a two-horse hose reel. By February 28, 1891, the Victor company had relocated to a single-story engine house at the City Lot at the corner of Salisbury and Davie streets.. On August 9, 1892, the Victors hosted the annual NCCVFA tournament in Raleigh. On April 7, 1897, the Victor engine house burned. The night fire started when one of the lamps on the hose reel exploded. It was quickly extinguished by the nearby Rescue Company, but not before partially consuming the structure and killing a pair of horses. The city was already planning to construct replacement quarters for the fire company, and construction on the project proceeded.
 
The Victors were later housed in a warehouse as temporary quarters until their new station at 135 East Hargett Street opened on April 2, 1898. By this time, the Victors had received a new horse-drawn hose wagon by July 20, 1897. On August 26, 1902, the Victors again hosted the annual NCCVFA tournament in Raleigh. On December 23, 1912, a fully-paid Raleigh Fire Department was placed in service. The equipment and facilities of the volunteer fire companies were utilized. The Victor station reopened on February 10, 1913, as Station 3. The Victor Company, along with the other volunteer companies, were declared out of commission on March 7, 1913.
 
A second company of colored firefighters organized by September 11, 1872. Called the Bucket Company, they received a charter from the General Assembly on February 28, 1873. The incorporators were A. L. Gorham [sic], J. W. Winslow, J. W. Butler, Ephraim Johnston, G. E. Lane, and others. The fire company was also called the Bucket and Ladder Company. They were housed in the basement of Metropolitan Hall. They received a new hand-pulled truck by May 19, 1876. Installation of fire hydrants in 1887 improved firefighting techniques in Raleigh, and lessened the need for hand-powered aid such as hand engines and buckets. The Bucket Company was disbanded and their apparatus sold after January 8, 1892.

[Image]

Photo by North Carolina Department of Sate Archives

Victor hose company in front of old station #3. Disband Dec.23, 1912.

This circa 1913 photograph shows the Victor Company engine house. This is Fire Company #3 of the now fully-paid Raleigh Fire Department, which was placed in service in December 1912. The former Victor Company engine house served as Station 3 until 1951. The structure was subsequently demolished. Pictured from left to right are (in the back) Charles F. Gaston, Luther C. Thompson, and W. Ernest Holland; (in the front ) Eugene E. Jones (standing), Henry M. Parrish, and Matthew J. Barker (driver). Source for names: North Carolina State Archives.

Career black firefighters were proposed as early as 1952. The 1952-53 fiscal year budget document contained the following message, likely from Fire Chief Alvin Lloyd: “We have had under consideration the setting up of Negro Company and believe that this should be considered and kept in mind as the department develops. I could find no way in this budget to make the changeover at this time. I believe after the new Central Station is set up and the equipment is rearranged that such a company could very well fit into the department.” This was likely a response to the formation of a black fire company in Winston-Salem in 1951.

The first career black firefighter, Larry Gene Williams, was hired in 1963, with seven hired between February 1963 and March 1964. They were Williams, Welton Jones, Ervin Louis Stephens, James Leon Giles, James Greene Jr., Norwood Matthew Peacock, and Richmond Davis Jr. Six were moved to Station 2 at Memorial Auditorium between March 1963 and April 1964. Stephens was assigned to Station 1. They staffed Engine 2, along with a white officer and driver. They operated as integrated fire company, but with segregated living quarters. Five of six members were transferred to other stations in August 1965, thus integrating entire fire department.

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ROCKY MOUNT

By Todd Joyner and Scooter Hedgepeth



Photo courtesy of North Carolina Department of Archives N76 6 52

On March 11, 1896 the town council approved the first black fire company and appointed D.D. McIntire as its foreman. This bucket brigade, composed of 26 men, was stationed in the 100 block of East Thomas Street. The company was responsible for the operation of the hand drawn hook and ladder wagon. This was a well trained and efficient company and as Captain E.J. Pitt recalled on one occasion were able to arrive at the fire and have it under control before other equipment could be set up.

This group of men attended many of the state conventions and tournaments walking a way with several awards for their skill and speed. In 1906 while practicing for an event at the upcoming tournament in Warrenton, North Carolina, Henry Mitchell died of a heart attack. (fom the Evening Telegram, 6 July 1967). This was the first firefighter of record to die in the line of duty.

In 1903, Bynum "Boo" King was a jailer for the City Police when he was given the opportunity to become caretaker of the fire horses and paid driver for the fire department. King lived in the fire station from 1904 until his death July 31, 1940 at the age of 97. He had requested that a fire truck be used as his hearse at his death. His request was granted and Engine 3 rolled out "Bertha" to give "Boo" his final ride. The rest of the black fire company lost interest and disband in 1914.

A colored fire company from Rocky Mount named Excelsior attended the 1904 convention in Wilson. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1904.

Sanborn Map from 1912:
 


Sanborn Maps from August 1917 describe the fire department as consisting of five paid men, four volunteer companies, and also 22 colored men on a hook and ladder truck.

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SALISBURY

"An Act for the regulation of the Town of Salisbury, securing the Inhabitants in their Possessions, and to encourage the Settlement of the said Town.

And to prevent Dangers arising by Fire, Be it Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That each and every Householder within the said Town of Salisbury, shall procure or cause to be procured, two sufficient Leather buckets, and a Ladder and keep same in continual readiness against any Alarm that may be given, occasioned by breaking out of Fire at any Time in the said Town; on Penalty of paying Twenty Shillings Proclamation Money."

As the above clearly shows Salisbury was aware of the dangers of fire in an early time. In somewhat more modern times there is documentation to show that in 1867 S.E. Linton was to take charge of the hose reel and fire engines and to organize the fire companies. A name is mentioned for one of the fire companies as Freedmen consisting of thirty to thirty-five members. This must have been black firefighters as white firefighters would not have considered such a name.

Salisbury hosted the conventions for the states white organization on several occasions but it also hosted the convention of black firefighters on at least one occasion in 1900. This was the 11th annual convention according to newspaper accounts. This being true would indicate that the first convention was held in 1889. Following this line would then take us back several more years to the organization of individual black fire companies. 1867 would not seem unreasonable to consider as the first organized black fire company in Salisbury. These men were volunteers according to documents used for this research. Emancipation gave these men freedom and with that came responsibility. Responsibility to help protect their fellow man from the dangers of fire. Document show black firefighters still active in 1907 giving them forty years of active service.

A colored fire company from Salisbury called the Athletes Hose Reel #4 attended the 1904 convention in Wilson. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1904.

Sanborn Maps from February 1902 describe department as:

Volunteer with a Chief and one driver, paid. Two horses "for fire duty only, kept in livery stable, two squares from town hall." Stable to be "arranged" at Town Hall for same. Fire alarm by bell at Town hall. Telephone connection with pumping station. Ninety-five double hydrants.

One hose company, white, with sixteen men. One hook and ladder company, white, with eight men. One hose company, colored, with twelve men. One, one-horse new hook and ladder truck. One one-horse new hose wagon. Four hand hose reels. 1700 feet two-and-a-half inch cotton rubber-lined hosed. 300 feet two-and-a-half inch rubber hose. 500 feet of two-and-a-half inch cotton rubber-lined hose ordered.

Subsequent map of August 1907 lists the same fire companies and membership numbers.

Subsequent map of November 1913 lists only one company of partly paid members, no race indicated.

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SMITHFIELD

Documentation is available to show the presence of black fire fighters here but not enough information for a report.

Sanborn Maps from September 1915 lists the fire department as volunteer with a Captain, ten white, and ten "negro men." Two hose reels and one wagon. Equipment included 1,500 feet two-and-a-half inch hose, ladders, and a fire alarm system with whistle and bells. Town had forty-four double hydrants.



The prior map of 1908 lists only "ten volunteer firemen."

The subsequent map of September 1924 lists the fire department as partly paid, with a Chief, Asst. Chief, and twenty-eight men, half of whom are colored. One Reo combination auto truck with 450 GPM pump, 40 gallon chemical tank, and 800 feet two-and-a-half inch hose. One Oldsmobile automobile truck with 40 gallon chemical tank and 1200 feet two-and-a-half inch hose. Two hose reels and 500 feet of two-and-a-half inch hose. Trucks kept at garage. Driver sleeps in building. Phone in room and in driveway, near trucks. Alarm by phone. Electric siren at City Hall and bell to give location of fire. Town has sixty-four double hydrants.


 
Sanborn Map of 1937:


 

STATESVILLE

In 1905 Statesville boasted 125 black volunteer firefighters. This story will be updated at a later date.

Statesville colored fire company members attended the 1897 convention. Source: Newspaper article.

A colored fire company from Statesville called Defiance Fire Company No. 2 attended the 1908 convention in Rocky Mount. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1908.

Sanborn Map of 1905:
 


Subsequent map of May 1911 lists a fire company of eighteen men, with two paid men on constant duty, and five who sleep on premises. Race of members not noted.

Hose & Nozzle magazine, August 1958.

Statesville Negro Firemen Retire After 45 Years.

Like the water pits they recalled of years before, they are giving way to newer things. Where big holes used to stand to catch the rains, water lines now run. Hand pumps have been replaced by gasoline engines. Now, some 45 years after they joined, Melvin Feimster and J. Quincy Davidson are retiring from Statesville Negro Volunteer Fire Department. They are the last of 15 Statesville Negroes who formed the volunteer outfit way back in 1894. All the others are dead.

Feimster and Davidson were not original members of the unit--they were too young back then--but they joined as soon as age permitted. And in the intervening years, they have seen the local battery of volunteers grow into a permanent force backed by 18 full-time firemen and equipment that would have appalled them 45 years ago.

"With all this modern equipment, one man can do as much as six used to do back then," quipped Davidson, now in his 70th year. He recalled old fire-fighting tactics in Statesville, even long before he joined the volunteers, when there were no water lines in the city. "They had to pump by hand back then," he said. "There weren't any water works around here anywhere then, except what rained in the pits."

The "pits" he referred to were nothing but holes in the ground that caught water from the rains. There were nine of them in the downtown fire limits. "When there was water in them were were all right," Davidson remarked, "but during a dry spell, a fire could burn up everything around here."

But the installation of water mains across the city in 1898, the retiring firemen recalled, still wasn't guaranteed protection against devastating blazes. The worst fire of their recollection was to come the night of January 10, 1923, when billowing flames devoured 17 homes, an old herb house and laundry on Depot Hill. "That fire burned up every darn thing on that hill," Davidson recalled.

Nor were their years of service to the city to go without incident for the last of the Negro volunteers. Both, at one time in their careers, have been overcome by smoke."

Sanborn Fire Insurance map of March 1905 lists department as volunteer with a paid Chief who is also Police Chief and receives annual salary. Two career firemen who sleep on premises. Two white volunteers who have free lodging on premise. Four hose reels and one four-wheeled hose cart drawn by horses, which are stationed at main hose house on Center Street. 125 volunteers, colored. 2200 feet two-and-a-half inch hose. No fire alarm system. Seventy-seven double hydrants.
 

TARBORO


Fulton Hook and Ladder Company Band. Tarboro
Photo courtesy North Carolina Department of Archives 76 6 50

Documents dated 1901 and 1913 show 25 colored firefighters manning the hook and ladder. No other information is available at this time.

The Fulton Fire Company attended the 1904 convention in Wilson. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1904.

Sanborn Map of October 1901 lists department as volunteer with three hose companies, ten men each, white. One hook and ladder company of twenty-five men, colored. 2500 feet of two-and-a-half inch C.R.L. hose. All apparatus drawn by hand. Alarm by bell at Town hall, "which locates the fire district." Forty-three double hydrants in town.
 


Sanborn Map of October 1913 lists department as volunteer except one fully-paid driver. One chief, sixty-nine volunteers: forty-four white and twenty-five negro. One American LaFrance 70 HP automobile combination engine and hose wagon with one 50 gallon chemical tank, 200 feet of chemical hose, and 1250 feet of two-and-a-half inch C.R.L. hose. One horse-drawn hose wagon. One Nott 60 gallon chemical engine with 125 feet of chemical hose. One hand-drawn service hook and ladder truck, operated by "Negro Company" with twenty-five members. Three hose reels each with 300 feet two-and-a-half inch C.R.L. hose. 2,500 feet good two-and-a-half inch C.R.L. hose. 300 feet ordinary hose. Two five gallon chemical extinguishers. Six three gallon chemical extinguishers. Town has sixty-three double hydrants.
 

 
Sanborn Map of 1923:
 

 

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WAKE FOREST

In 1917 the fire district was established and a fire department was organized. T. M. Arrington was appointed Chief and J.L. Taylor was to serve as his assistant. As in most early fire departments a hose reel was the main piece of equipment. The reel was kept at the water tank. At some point a black fire company was also formed and of course a hose reel was their first equipment as well.

The hose reel with 500 ft of 2½ hose along with other equipment became more than the volunteers wanted to pull. As all good firefighters will they came up with a better idea. John Brewer had an old Westcott automobile he was willing to part with. No one knows how they were able to raise the money but somehow they got the funds together and made the purchase. Everyone knows that you can't make a fire truck out of an automobile but everyone knows a firefighter will take advantage of any opportunity. First they cut the top off. Next they constructed a bed for the hose and a basket was installed to hold chemical tanks, provisions were made for carrying ladders. It may have looked like the Beverly Hillbillies but it served well for several years.

The Wake Forest College Campus was a part of the town protected by the volunteer department. Sometime in the early or mid thirties a student enrolled there that was bent on burning the place to the ground. The department had their hand full with the Chapel suffering heavy damage, Hunter Dormitory was set on fire three times and Wait Hall was totally destroyed before student patrols discovered the arsonist in the act and ended his career. This got everyone's attention and an effort was made to get better equipment In 1934 a new pumper was purchased for the town. The 1934 Chevrolet remained in service until 1948 when a new pumper was delivered and it was moved to the number two station to serve as first line for the company of black firefighters.

The black fire company at #2 was formed about the same time as the white company both having began with hose reels in the late teens or early twenty's. They were just as ingenious as the white firefighters when it came to equipment. Frank Keith was chief of the white fire company in the early years and also operated a grocery. Keith used a open sided delivery truck for his grocery wagon. When it came time to replace the grocery wagon with a more modern truck the old wagon became the hose wagon for number two.

Wake Forest Fire Department #2 was formed after May 7, 1942, after the Town Board appointed a committee to  investigate "advisability of encouraging the formation of a Colored Volunteer Fire Company." The two fire departments merged by February 2, 1983, in advance of a merger of the town and rural fire department. The former WFFD #2 station, located on Taylor Street and converted to a community center, burned on February 2, 1983.


Wake Forest Fire Department #2, c. 1953.

Pictured with their 1948 Chevrolet pumper are, left to right, Chief Edward Alston, Matthew Williams, George Massenburg, and Robert Alston. (Courtesy of Wake Forest College Birthplace Society.)


Fireman’s Games, July 12, 1957.

Members of Wake Forest Fire Department #2 compete in a closing event of the 67th annual session of the North Carolina Volunteer Fireman’s Association, which was held at DuBois High School in Wake Forest. The all-black fire department was formed in 1942. (N&O photograph.)


Reunion, c. 1978–1979.

Former Wake Forest firefighters are pictured from left to right: J. Albert Perry, Hubert K. “Doc” Denton, Raymond C. Keith, Willis H. Winston, George Timberlake Jr., J. Bruce Keith, W.H. “Buddy” Holden, Woodrow Williams, W.W. “Bill” Holden, Oscar Smith, Mckinny Mitchell, and Edward “Ed” Alston. (Courtesy of Wake Forest Fire Department.)


Fire Station Fire, February 2, 1983.

Severely damaged by a suspicious fire, the former quarters of Wake Forest Fire Department #2 on N. Taylor Street had been empty since the town’s three fire departments merged a year before. (Wake Weekly photograph by Greg Allen.)

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WARRENTON

Restored hand drawn Hook and Ladder now in the North Carolina Museum of History.
Photo courtesy North Carolina Department of Archives N 76 69

In the year 1869 the time had come that something had to be done about the fire protection in Warrenton. Two wells were located on the grounds of the court house and could furnish enough water for a bucket company. A time was appointed that black citizens would meet in one location and white in another to organizer fire companies. The black group numbered twelve men. The white group never met. No funds were available and no equipment. What could twelve black men do to fight fire in a situation like this? Take the situation in hand and do what they could with what they had. Oil cans were the only containers available at no cost so a bucket company was formed using available oil cans for buckets to fight fire. The water supply was to be the wells at the court house.

A later improvement for the bucket company was the addition of a cart or small wagon. It was to be hand drawn and loaded with buckets and ladders. A huge shield was used to get closer to the fire with their water buckets.

Notification of fire for this early bucket company was probably by voice. Any one discovering a fire would shout "FIRE" and any one hearing the alarm would repeat the cry "FIRE" the message was repeated by anyone hearing it until all were alerted. In these early years this was enough to strike fear in any ones heart. Fire was a terrible thing to happen to any town.

Numbered among the early fire fighters was one Jimmie Ransom. Jimmie and his brother were skilled craftsmen and ran a wagon shop. These men took it upon themselves to built a wagon for transporting ladders with hooks and chains and buckets. They completed their project, and placed the wagon in service even with no horses to pull it. Man power was used to pull the wagon for some time .

Cisterns were dug and a hand engine was purchased to give even better service. After horse drawn wagons became obsolete a Model-T Ford was purchased. This was used for a number of years.

Even with the crude methods of communication these men were able to learn of other black fire companies in the state and by 1888 they had band together to form an organization called the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association. John S. Plummer became the driving force behind the organization and remained president of the group for a number of years. From the day of its inception the Warrenton Fire Department has always had a Plummer on its roles. John S. Plummer, the first chief of Warrenton, served for 25 years as president of the state organization. Baker Plummer who was born in 1881 served for 67 years as a fireman also being president of the North Carolina Colored Fireman's Association for three terms. To be a Plummer is to be a fireman.

Sanborn Map from 1891:
 

 
Two colored fire company from Warrenton called Hand Engine No. 1 and Hand Engine No. 2 attended the 1904 convention in Wilson. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1904.

A 1949 news account of the convention and tournaments was published in the Warren Record. Eight towns were represented at this convention The schedule of events listed were a business session, a dance, a baseball game, races and a dinner. The account also told of a 1900 document giving the minutes of the meeting held in Salisbury, North Carolina September 11-12-13 of that year. It listed duties of a fireman as: " Its every fireman's duty to be ready for a call with engine, hose and ladders and horses in their stalls. Like an army to action when it is in the field against fiery courage, the fiery pot must yield its every fireman to duty when on duty there comes a message swift and sure . . he must use both his nerve and skill in order that water shall soon win the day. And its every fireman's duty to obey his captain's orders wherever he be. His work with courage will be only done if he obeys."

An incident in 1967

Mary Louise and Roger Limer liked sitting on the porch late on summer evenings. Mary Louise's former home in Yonkers, New York didn't afford such luxuries as sitting on the porch watching and waving to friends as they passed by. It was a time to unwind and discuss the things they needed to do. There was no remote control for Roger to flip through endless channels. The remote control had not been invented. Besides, they enjoyed each others company to much.

On such an evening, probably in late July, they sat relaxing. Mary Louise's gaze happened to wander to the tobacco warehouse across the street. A one hundred foot tall 17,000 gallon water tank was in back of it. The tank held a reserve supply of water. The elevation gave it the pressure it needed to bring water out of the taps of the residents of Warrenton. "Roger," she asked "where would all that water go if that tank were to somehow burst?" Without much hesitation, Roger suggested, "Now think about it just a moment, Mary Louise, where do you think it would go?" "Well I guess it would just go straight down," she replied. The tank was dismissed from her thoughts as she contemplated another problem. "Roger, wouldn't it be nice if the porch were screened in?" Mary Louise asked next. " I think that would be nice. Why don't you find a carpenter that could do that for us." answered Roger.

After searching for several days and getting promises, work finally began on the screened porch. The job was coming along nicely until late on the evening of August 14, 1967.

About 9:00 PM someone discovered smoke coming from the tobacco warehouse across the street from the Limers. An Alarm was sounded and the firefighters responded in full force.

Warrenton is very proud of their fire department. The company was founded in the 1860's and has served the city well from that time. The company takes pride in the fact that they are the oldest black fire company in the state.

The reputation of the Warrenton fire department was soon on the line. The fire was rapidly growing out of control. A call for assistance was sent to Warrenton Rural Fire Department and Norlina as well as other neighboring communities. Thirty five fire units were finally on the scene but things did not look good. During the first few moments of the fire, wires began to fall causing a power outage. The towns water pump was knocked out.

Roger Limer had a front row seat to all the action, as he watched from his front porch. It was quite a spectacular event, not even the firefighters had a better view. The struggle to gain control of the fire was not going well at all.

No one could have predicted what would happen next. The heat was so intense that the legs of the one hundred foot water tower were weakened and the structure buckled.

The tank and its contents crashed to the ground right in the center of the warehouse. Metal fragments as well as other debris flew in every direction. Grady Moseley, a bystander suffered a sever shoulder injury. Warrenton firefighters, Claude Harrington and Joseph Richardson were injured by flying steel. Asst. Chief McCarroll Alston, was burned from the shoulder to the elbow. Willie Robinson of the Warrenton Rural Fire Department was overcome by smoke and heat. The front seat that Roger Limer had enjoyed came at a high price. The tidal wave of water from the fallen tank knocked Roger from his feet and bounced him around severely. The double front door of the house gave way to the rushing water and the deluge poured into his home with gusto. Roger spent a short time in the hospital while Mary Louise dealt with all of the carpenters lined up to seek work at her house. The front porch was soon screened and other repairs made but the view was not the same. Several of the neighbors homes also suffered damage, as well as other businesses along the street.

The reputation of the Warrenton Fire Department was left intact as the falling water tank all but extinguished the fire. If there is a moral to this story it would be "Don't put all your water in one bucket."

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WASHINGTON

Since 1889 the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association has held an annual meeting, usually in August. As in most communities this is a month where the occurrence of fire has a low possibility due to not requiring heat in any buildings. Even with this consideration the question comes to mind. Can we let an entire company leave town for several days and not expect at some time that the odds would catch up to us?

For some yet unknown reason the annual meeting for the year 1900 was held in September. The meeting was held in Salisbury and The Salamander Company from Washington was attending . The tournament and other business closed out on Thursday evening, September 13, 1900. The different delegations began packing up and departing. The Salamander team boarded their train early Friday morning. The Salisbury evening paper carried the following story.

"Washington, N.C., Sept.13------------------------------------Washington is in ashes. From Water street beginning at the oyster factory up the street a distance two hundred yards or near to the Crystal Ice Company factor, and from the corner of Water street up to Market street to Main street, our town lies in ruins that never have been surpassed in its history since the civil war, and the property loss far exceeds that o the war when our town was burned by the Yankees, the loss being approximately one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Upon a careful examination it is presumed the loss will far exceed these figures.

The fire originated in Brabble's restaurant about on o'clock caused by a defective stove flue. In a few minutes the building was a total loss and the fire had spread to all adjacent buildings.

All citizens of the town, both white and colored, did valiant service. The fire raged from 1:15 to 5 o'clock. Many were prostrated by the excessive heat.

Mayor Studdert wired the fire departments of Greenville and Rocky Mount for assistance, as the whole town was at one time in danger. The Greenville fire company is now on the scene and the fire is under control. ------ Raleigh Post "
The first discovery of a record of a death of a black firefighter in North Carolina was Edward Peed of Washington.

Charles Yates began a search for the grave of Edward Peed in 1997. After a long and tireless effort he finally found the head stone in an old private black cemetery. The stone had been pushed over by vandals but he was able to read the inscription.

Peed's death had been forgotten over the years until Charles Yates completed his search. His name is now a part of the history of the Washington Fire Department.

The following was written by Charles T. Yates, Volunteer Fireman, Washington, NC Fire Department 1951-1976:

The Washington Fire Company, forerunner of the present Fire Department was organized in 1791. The present Fire Department organized 1892. The volunteer fire company known as the Salamanders wore red helmets and sang as they operated their hand pumps. ( This is mentioned in another area as a way to coordinate their efforts.) Membership in this company was highly prized and the company was composed of the most outstanding black men in the community. The company was led by Professor Sylvester Dibble who, with a partner, operated the only barber shop in Washington. In 1904 there were 201 volunteer firefighters in Washington of which 86 were white an 115 colored. The fire equipment consisted of One Silsby steam engine, one small hand engine and two large hand engines. Five 2 wheel hose carts one supply wagon and one hook and ladder wagon.

The year was 1881 when the Salamander Fire Company was chartered in the town of Washington, North Carolina. This all black volunteer company wore red helmets and sang songs as they operated their hand pumps at local fires.

The Salamander Fire Company attended the 1904 convention in Wilson. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1904.

Sanborn Map from 1901:
 


Sanborn Maps from August 1916 list a colored fire company housed in the 100 block of West 5th Street, one of four fire stations. The company had 30 men and two hose reels with 1,000 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose.


 

One fire with a sad ending occurred on February 8, 1902 in downtown Washington, N.C.. It began about 5:25PM on this Saturday afternoon from a defective flue at the Atlantic Coast Line Freight Warehouse which was located on the local water front. In a short time the entire building was in flames, and for a time, it seemed that the town was at the mercy of the fire, mainly because the steam fire engine had failed to work!

The fire spread rapidly, first to the grain elevator building, then to the Hoyt Store, occupied by E. Peterson Co. and on to the warehouse at the rear Of H. Susman Furniture Co. , plus a number of sheds on the water front. Finally, at 8:30PM, the fire was brought under control and clean-up operations began.

Shortly after 9PM, Edward Peed, a nozzleman for the Salamander Fire Company, was standing, throwing water on some of the rubbish when suddenly, and without warning, the western wall of the Hoyt Building, fell on fireman Peed, killing him instantly

Edward Peed was a very worthy colored fireman and all the citizens of Washington regretted his sudden death. Mr. Peed had been a member of the Salamander Fire Company for 20 years and was the first recorded fireman to die at the post of duty here in Washington, N.C.


Peed's stone in foreground.

A monument was erected by the white citizens and placed at his gravesite in appreciation of his faithfulness and service to his community. Mr. Peed died at the age of 46, leaving a wife Frances and two sons. he was buried in a local cemetery known as FAIR-VIEW. The last known burial there was in 1920.

While doing some research work for C.J. (Chuck) Milligan, a retired Captain of the Durham, N.C. Fire Department, who was in the process of writing the history of colored fire fighters in North Carolina, I discovered a graveyard of disgrace where stones and grave markers had been over turned and many broken as they lay among rubbish of bicycle parts, broken bottles , bricks and other debris. Pictures were taken to document this condition.

Certainly our fallen brother deserved a place of honor and not disgrace. It was then that I presented my story to Fire Chief Nelson Pyle of The Washington Fire Department, suggesting that a memorial garden be created at the station and efforts be made to transfer the monument of Edward Peed to the new location , giving him the recognition that he so richly deserved.

After two years of discussing and planning, the memorial garden became a reality July 29, 2000 , as local citizens attended Open House to view new fire equipment, to review promotion ceremonies of several firemen and to view the memorial garden which now proudly contains the monument of Edward Peed, born March 1, 1855 and died February 8, 1902 at the post of duty.

After 98 years of silence; "Let Us Not Forget"

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WELDON

Sanborn Maps from June 1915 describe the fire department as consisting of two volunteer fire companies, one white and one colored, with 11 men each. Fire equipment was housed at the Town Hall at 303 3rd Street and at three hose houses.
 

 

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WILMINGTON

The early days of Wilmington were not easy. The town had been laid off by an incompetent survey. A later survey found houses infringing on city streets or on a neighbor. Considerable development had taken place and it took some time to get it all in its proper place. As early as 1745 the wooden chimney had already become a fire hazard to deal with. Rubbish and flammable stores were a problem as well.

A tax of no more than 2 per cent in Proclamation Money was authorized and the proceeds were to be applied to the purchase of buckets, ladders and one or more water engines as well as a town bell for alarm.

By 1767 the engine that had been purchased with the taxes earlier mentioned was now in disrepair and the town was given six months to get their engine repaired and to sink two wells with pumps to use for extinguishing fire.

1771 and the engine is still not working so they got another six months to put things in order, also “ oblige the inhabitants to keep a sufficient number of leather buckets with their names thereon, to be ready in case of fire; to erect a fire company.”

For almost 30 years the provincial government has tried without success to get a fire company organized and some kind of protection for the citizens of Wilmington. There are better days ahead.

The results of one e-mail to the Wilmington Star and Mary MacCullum brought this reply.

You might try the New Hanover County Public Library, North Carolina History Room. The librarian there, Beverly Tetterton, is a published New Hanover County/Wilmington historian and is very helpful. That phone number is 910.341.4394.

The only reason for this introductory information is to show that a researcher should never give up. The results of previous efforts to retrieve information were less than expected. Over a period of 5 or 6 years a number of people have been approached with disappointing results. Now there is a book about the African-American influence in the early history of Wilmington, “Strength through Struggle” by William M. Reaves Edited by Beverly Tetterton. This book came about because Bill Reaves had the vision to salvage old newspapers from going out in the trash. This is a well documented volume that is a must for any serious effort to understand events of the era covered 1865-1950. The story of the Wilmington black firefighters is taken from this book with the permission of Beverly Tetterton, North Carolina Room, New Hanover Public Library, Wilmington, NC 28401 .

Wilmington was at one time the largest city in North Carolina. In 1860 the population was almost 10,000 with about half of this number black. Included were 573 free blacks. From then until 1900 blacks outnumbered whites in each census. The early history of Wilmington tells of many fires of great devastation. The docks where the warehouses were filled with navel stores were always a constant threat. Fires beginning here would soon spread to ships and the embers were blown into the city. Likewise fires starting on shipboard spread to the docks. Early efforts at fire suppression were minimal.

The War between the States brought on drastic changes in Wilmington. There were a large number of free blacks in Wilmington at the time of the war, some had been free for a number of years and had established themselves in the community. Now it was time for them to take on civil responsibility. The volunteer fire department seemed to be an ideal place of service. Valentine Howe as well as others were skilled carpenters and used their talents to make repairs or build fire houses. Their first efforts were with hand engines and buckets, steam engines were soon to come.

The first documented accounts of organized black fire companies were recorded in “Smaw’s Wilmington Directory” in 1866. Companies listed were the Brooklyn Fire Engine Company on Fourth St. between Bladen and Brunswick Sts. Fire King Engine Company #2 at Nun and Front Sts. Vigilant Fire Company #3 on Second St. between Market and Dock Sts. Fire Engine Company #1 on Third opposite City Hall. A short time later the J.C. Abbott Fire Engine Company #5 is mentioned. (Star 7-13-1869). So we have at least 5 black fire companies in service prior to 1869 and 1866.

These companies were not formed the day before this document was printed they had been organized sometime prior to that.

The Atlantic Engine Company, The Adrian Fire Engine Company is mentioned in a Biographical Sketch of John Stephen Jones. The Banneker Hose Reel Company left little documented history but they did operate between 1883 and 1888. Compton Hose Reel Company 1894-1897. The Dreadnaught Bucket Company #5 organized in 1876 functioned until 1893 or later. Phoenix Hose Reel Company #1 organized September 1, 1882 and was taken in as part of the paid department in 1897. Four other fire companies were organized, they were The Little Columbia Bucket and Hose Reel Company, Mechanics Hose Company, Independent Bucket Company and the Kidder Hill Fire Company. These four companies existed during the years 1872 to 1884. How long they lasted we do not know, they may have combined with other companies or simply disbanded.

Now we come to the most outstanding black fire company in the history of Wilmington. The Cape Fear Steam Engine Company. Their claim to being the first all black steam engine company in the United States has remained unchallenged to this date being organized in 1871. Their first engine was manufactured by R.J. Gold and delivered on November 6, 1871. The delivery date was a day for a gala celebration. The members of the Cape Fear Steam Engine Company donned their new uniforms of blue shirts with red bosom collar and cuffs, black pants, white belts, white gloves and blue caps. A parade was formed at the engine house on Ann street in the 100 block with music by The Star Brass Band they marched up Ann to South Sixth street. The new engine was decorated with evergreens and tiny flags and was pulled by horses with plumes attached to their heads. The parade ended at the home of George W. Price Jr. where a platform had been erected. Seated on the platform was the Chief engineer Perry M. Rice along with Mayor Silas Martin and chief marshal Owen Dove as well as other dignitaries. George W. Betts accepted the engine in behalf of the company.

Before delving further into the fire companies themselves it might be well to take a closer look at the fire fighters. At least a part of the membership came from free blacks rather than former slaves. Some of them had been free for more than one generation. Several had established themselves in the business community and gained a reputation of skilled craftsmen. The most outstanding example would be the members of the Howe family.

The patriarch of the Howe family was captured by British slave traders and taken from his home in Africa to be sold in the lower Cape Fear area. He took his name from his second owner who recognized his talent for carpentry early on. He had been given the name of Anthony Walker by his first owner but it was later changed to Howe by his second owner. Anthony was hired out by his master to plantations in the area because of his leadership and carpentry skills. After being freed soon after his masters death he continued in his craft and also trained his sons in the carpentry trade. Anthony (Walker) Howe died in 1837. Three sons Anthony (born 1807), Pompey and Alfred lived to adulthood.

This Anthony Howe (born 1807) had four sons, Anthony Jr., Valentine, Washington and John Harriss. All were skilled carpenters and as such took part in the building of some of the finer homes in Wilmington. They were involved in the politics of the city and several of the Howe family held public office. Almost every fire company at one time or another had a Howe on the roster. The most notable of the Howes as far as the fire service is concerned was Valentine.

VALENTINE HOWE

Valentine Howe became a member of the Cape Fear Steam Engine Company and served as an officer in the organization. Even before the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen’s Association was chartered the Cape Fear Company enjoyed competition with other fire companies even as far away as Charleston and Charlotte. In 1878 The Comet Steam Engine Company along with the Good Enough Steam Engine Company of Charleston came to Wilmington for a few days of competition and fellowship. The contests drew a large crowd as Charleston walked away with most of the honors. The Cape Fear Company traveled to Raleigh to put on demonstrations at the State Fair in 1887 and gave a stellar performance.

Valentine served with the Cape Fear Steam Engine Company for 35 years and also served as president of the NCCVFA for 5 years during its early development. He served on the board of Aldermen for two terms as well as two terms in the North Carolina State House of Representatives he was an Odd Fellow and a Mason.

Simon A. Richardson was president of the Wilmington Fire Bucket Company #1 in 1874. Simon had an interesting life to say the least which is best described in the article in the Messenger, dated August 10, 1887:

“A CHARMED LIFE”

Simon Richardson glories in having enjoyed more narrow escapes from death than most contemporaries. He has been struck by lightning and shot five times and yet survives to do a good day’s work...He is a well informed, tall copper colored man, apparently in the prime of life and works at the cotton compress. On one occasion he was in a tub of water performing ablutions. The tub was sitting in front of the hearth. Lightning stuck the chimney, run down, and shattered the tub under Simon. He was shocked, but not seriously, proving to tough for the bolt. During the war, he waited on Capt. Mort Nixon, whose company was in Hokes’s brigade. In one battle, he happened to get too near the front, was shot twice, in the instep and the thigh. The third time the hero was shot while gallantly bearing Capt. Nixon off the field at Greensboro. Again the ball struck him in the thigh. The fourth time he was shot was last winter, in this city, being mistaken for Bill Howe, who had excited the ire of the colored stevedores. This time he was hit in the hip. He does not know who fired the shot, but the discharge was from a pistol. The fifth and last time, he received a bullet was yesterday morning at 6 a.m. William Hill, a foster son, with whom he had difficulty the night before, shot him with a pistol as he was going to work, the ball going through his coat sleeve and penetrating the flesh of his breast. His life must certainly be a charmed one. At least he was not born be shot. or killed by lightning....” (Simon died of natural causes at age 75)

An item from the Gazette Dec. 19, 1896

Mr. John S. Jones lost his dwelling house on Market street Saturday night the 5th, by fire, while at his post of duty at the engine room on Castle street. The fire alarm had been turned in for a fire on South Front Street. This being out of the district of the Cape Fear Engine Co., they were not to respond only in case of a general alarm. At this moment Mr. Jones at his engine, an alarm was sent in from this section, and it was found to be his house. The house was covered by insurance, but none on the furniture. He will soon rebuild.

Returning to the saga of the fire companies:

The first engine of the Cape Fear Company began to show the stress of service. It had served well for 14 years at a number of large fires and at the monthly practices as well a the tournaments it had been in. The time came to replace the engine in 1886. The replacement was a Silsby #4 put in service on June 7, 1887. A new set of drop harness was also installed. The Cape Fear Company had to replace several horses over the years as well. One horse had become sick and was resting in his stall when an alarm sounded he jumped up and started for his engine but fell and never recovered. The faithfulness of these noble animals is a story of its own.

After all these years of service when the time came to switch to a full paid department it would seem natural that these men would be ask to serve. A few of them were. The decision was made to replace the volunteers with a paid force on November 28, 1897. Eighteen of the black firefighters were hired in March of 1898 along with fifteen white firefighters. A few short months and all of the black firefighters were fired and replaced by white fire fighters. This came about on November 15, 1898.

Sad to say politics reared its ugly head in making the decision to replace the black firefighters with white. From the end of the War Between the States the black community had joined the Republican Party. The black vote was strong enough to sway most elections in this city where the blacks outnumbered whites. As time went along more and more black politicians took office and more and more blacks were hired in government work. The some in the white community had seen all of this they wanted to see. The White Supremacist movement began to come to the forefront. By the election of 1898 they were so well organized that through intimidation and other means they were able to vote out most of the local black leaders. Riots ensued and blood was shed. This is also a story of its own that will not be dealt with here.

WILSON

A colored hook and ladder company from Wilson attended the 1894 convention. Source: News & Observer, August 15, 1894.

A colored fire company called the Red Hots attended the 1904 convention in Wilson. Source: News & Observer, August 12, 1904.

Sanborn Maps from February 1922 describe the fire department as including a colored fire company with one paid man, and 12 volunteers. No engine house address is indicated.

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WINSTON

Winston hosted the convention in 1897 at which time they donated the belt shown at the top of the page. They also hosted the convention in August, 1906 and one item of interest in the news coverage is shown below.

This indicates that black firefighters as well as white firefighters attended the national convention as delegates. What was this organization?

Newspaper accounts of colored firefighter conventions indicate Winston had one or more colored fire companies by 1896 and until at least 1907. Winston merged with Salem in 1913, and the fire department was fully-paid by 1923. The city hired its first full-time black firefighters in 1951. Sources include Winston-Salem Journal, July 12, 2007.

A colored fire company form Winston named the Hook and Ladder Company attended the 1896 convention in Wilson. Source: News & Observer, August 13, 1896.
 
Sanborn Map of 1895:
 


The first career firefighters in the merged towns of Winston-Salem were hired in March 1951. They were Raphel O'Hara Black, Willie James Carter, Lester Edward Ervin Jr., John Henry Ford, Robert Lindsay Grier, John Franklin Meredith Jr., George Waddell Penn, and John Roy Thomas. They reported for duty on March 1, 1951 to Station 4 on Dunleith Avenue. They received $192 a month during their six weeks of training. The fire company (Engine 4) consisted of eight black firefighters and seven white officers. They operated as integrated fire company, but with segregated living quarters. City laws required separate sleeping quarters and kitchen. It cost $10,000 to renovate fire station. The company was limited to fighting fires in African-American neighborhoods until June 2, 1951, when they were called to assist at the Wood Finishing Products Company Plant #652 on Waughtown Road. Engine 4 became an all-black company by 1957. The entire fire department was integrated by November 1967.

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Convention Photos, 1996

The 1996 convention drew four cities. A far cry from the activity of the late 1800's.

Rough and Ready of Greenville 1996: Helen Bell, John Bizzell, Earnest Peterson, Linwood Raspberry, William Harkley

The lone representative of the Louisburg Department, James Perry 1996

Warrenton representatives at the 1996 convention: Leon Cheek, Kelvin Davis and Don Stith

Wilson's Red Hot Hose Reel Company: Marvin Jones, Harvey Moore and Hubert Speight

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Names of Black Firefighters

Charlotte

Durham

Concord

Enfield

Fayetteville

Greensboro

Greenville

Henderson

Louisburg

Monroe

New Bern

Oxford

Raleigh

Rocky Mount

Salisbury

Statesville

Swansboro

Wake Forest

Warrenton

Charter Members 1868

1869-1899

1900-1958

Washington

Wilmington

First Paid Black Firefighters 11/28/1897

All Fired 11/15/1898 Replaced By Whites

Volunteers:

Wilson

Winston

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