|legeros.com > History > Early Black Firefighters of NC|
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.
|Charlotte||Fayetteville||New Berne||Wake Forest|
|East Spencer||Henderson||Rocky Mount||Wilmington|
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.
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.
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.
From A Brief History of the Charlotte Fire
Department, written in 2014, this information is presented: in the 1850s, the
black community in Charlotte petitioned the Board of Alderman and the Mayor's
Office for a colored fire company. Also, during those times, slave owners were
requested to allow their slaves to participate in firefighting activities prior
to the 1875 organization of the department. The colored fire company was named
the Yellow Jackets, and later renamed [or re-organized as] the
Neptune Fire Company--organized in 1868--and the
Dreadnaught Fire Company. The unified Charlotte Fire Department,
organized in 1875, consisted of four companies, the white Hornet, Pioneer, and
Independent Hook and Ladder companies, and the black Neptune fire company.
The Charlotte Observer on March 30, 1892, reported that the "new color fire company, to be known as 'Dread Naught' No. 4' was meeting tomorrow night to "fully perfect the organization." The company would use the hose reel named 'Our Pet' and the [hand] engine of the "old Pioneer Company". They would also use the "old fire hall [located] by the Lawyers' building."
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.
The Charlotte Observer on April 10, 1898, reported that the colored fire company was "taken down" to Rock Hill, S.C., during a "great fire which recently afflicted the town." They assisted Rock Hill's white fire company.
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
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
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:
A company of black firefighters represented Clinton at an early convention but no other information has surfaced.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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
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.
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.
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.
From History of the Gastonia Fire Department by Robert L. Ridgeway, Former Fire Chief, via https://www.cityofgastonia.com/images/files/fire/documents/GFD_Fire_Department_History2-12-15.pdf
By 1900, [...] the Board of Aldermen began to seriously consider the formation of fire companies to provide formalized fire protection for the town’s citizens. Gastonia now had six cotton mills, a third hotel, and an opera house. In recognition of the growing threat of fire, town Aldermen passed a motion on December 6, 1900 “to allow Negroes to organize a fire company of 12 members, to relieve them of the poll tax, and to give each member a shirt and a cap”. This action was followed on February 7, 1901 by the acceptance of an application for the formation of “a white volunteer fire company”, and “equipment for 5 of their number was ordered to be purchased”.
During 1901, the Board of Aldermen continued with efforts to add to and formalize fire protection in Gastonia. On May 23, 1901, a permit was issued “allowing Anders and Floyd to erect a wooden shed adjoining the stable now occupied by them and situated within the fire limits of the Town of Gastonia”. On June 6, a motion was passed that authorized T.L. Craig to “buy for the town two mules, harnesses, and a wagon, the kind of wagon, harnesses and mules to be determined by Mr. Craig”. Thus, by the end of 1901, Gastonia had formalized the organization of fire companies and purchased its first fire engine.
On May 16, 1902, the Mayor appointed V.E. Long and J.L. Robinson to serve as a committee to investigate the needs of the fledgling fire department, and to make a report back to the Board of Aldermen. The committee was authorized to “purchase such hose, suits, nozzles, and such as per list submitted”. On June 12, it was moved and seconded “that we erect an ordinance creating a Chief of the Fire Department”. On September 11, 1902 the committee recommended that a fire chief be elected, and “that we elect George Glenn Chief of the Fire Department”. This motion was passed, and the Gastonia Fire 3 Department has its first chief.
On April 11, 1904, W.P. Upton succeeded George Glenn as Fire Chief, at a salary of $ 100. per year, while other members of the volunteer fire company were paid $ 20. per year. A major organizational change in the fire department occurred at this time by combining both the white and the “colored” volunteer fire companies under the control of one chief. As noted in the minutes of the Board of Aldermen meeting on April 11, 1904: “the colored men were to be under the control of Chief Upton and to get the same pay as the white (men) do”.
Demand for service and a general lack of support apparently doomed the two volunteer fire companies, and the colored Fire Company was disbanded on October 1, 1906. Aldermen V.E. Long and T.W. Wilson specified in Town records that “the thanks of the Board were extended to the “colored” firemen for their efficient services”. The disbanding of the colored volunteer Fire Company was followed on July 23, 1907 by the mass resignation of “the volunteer firemen of Hose Company Number One”. The letter of resignation submitted to the Board of Aldermen noted that “the volunteer firemen have not had the proper support and funding from the Board of Aldermen that a volunteer fire company should receive”. Apparently the mass resignations and complaints of the volunteer firemen served to good purpose, because another volunteer fire company was immediately organized by the Board as Gastonia Fire Company Number One, and B.H. Parker was elected as Chief.
Goldsboro is still in question.
Photo courtesy of Archives Division,
Greensboro Historical Museum
The Charlotte Chronicle newspaper on November 24, 1887, reported that "a colored Hook and Ladder Company has just been organized, and the city has offered to equip them with uniforms, etc. They will be subordinate to the white fire department, which is now in splendid trim."
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 fire company in Greenville, and in Pitt County, was the colored Rough and Ready fire company, organized by Captain Samuel Mason in 1884. See biographical information in the Wilson section.
Henderson sent two black fire companies to the 1906 convention and tournament in Winston.
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.
The Lincoln Courier on January 3, 1890, mentioned the work of the colored fire company, in battling a blaze at the store named the Racket, described as "one of the most thriving, most popular, and most enterprising businesses of our town." The fire started in the basement and could not be extinguished, but the fire company and citizens prevented its spread to adjoining buildings.
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."
The first fire company in Kinston was the colored Dread Not (Dreadnaught) fire company, organized by Captain Samuel Mason in 1896. See biographical information in the Wilson section.
The colored Hook and Ladder Company served the city of Kinston by 1916. It was mentioned in a newspaper article in the Raleigh Times, July 15, 1916.
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 Charlotte Observer on July 5, 1889, mentioned that the "colored fire company Monroe" traveled to Charlotte to celebrate the Fourth of July, and joined Charlotte's colored fire companies in a "street parade." They also engaged in a contest with the "running teams Nos. 1 and 2" of the Neptune Company, competing in the quickest time for stretching hose and flowing water from a hydrant.
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.
The Charlotte Observer on August 8, 1901, mentioned that the "colored reel team" was practicing nightly for the "coming contests" in town.
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.
In 1905, the Monroe H. R. No. 1 company was listed in the annual conference proceedings. In 1923, the Monroe Hook & Ladder Company No. 2 was listed in the annual conference proceedings.
[The convention was also held in Monroe on] 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.
[ Newspaper Account ]
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.
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.
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:
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 2" 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.
Princeville was established in 1865 by freed slaves had an all black fire volunteer fire company sometime in the late 1800's.
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
Photo by North Carolina Department of Sate Archives
Victor hose company in front of old station #3. Disband Dec.23, 1912.
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.
"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.
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:
In 1905 Statesville boasted 125 black volunteer firefighters. This story will be updated at a later date.
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.
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 2" 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, 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.)
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.
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."
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.
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"
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.
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 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.
Black fire companies in Wilmington, from 2018 research notes by Kaleigh Wagner.
The first fire company in Wilson was a colored fire company organized in 1884.
In the book An Illustrated History of Wilson Fire-Rescue, by Odis Daughtridge and Brian Oliver, self-published in 2017, they state that the first colored fire company in Wilson was organized in 1884 by Samuel Wilson. Born in 1843 in New Bern of free parentage, Captain Samuel Osborne Mason was a blacksmith by trade, and master of the trade. In 1863, he enlisted as a private of Company A, 35th United States Colored Troops, and served three years in the Department of the South under Generals Seymour, Foster, and Gilmour. He was promoted to Corporal in 1864, for bravery. He was mustered out in 1866. Mason organized the Rough and Ready Fire Company of Greenville in 1884, the first fire company organized in Pitt County. The same year, he organized the first fire company in Wilson. He was also a member of the Cape Fear Fire Company in Wilmington. Three years later, he organized the first fire company in Lenoir County, the Dred Nots (Dreadnaughts) of Kinston in 1896.
By 1904, Wilson's colored fire company was named the Red Hot fire company, with variations that included Red Hose Hose, Reel, and Truck Company and Red Hot Hose Company No. 2.
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.
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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