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.

Introduction

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

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


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

The North Carolina State Volunteer Fireman's Association, later known as the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Fireman's Association, was organized in 1890, at a meeting of colored fire companies from Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh, Wilmington, Monroe, and Charlotte. 



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



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

See digitized conference proceedings, 1905 to 1923, various years.

HOW AND WHY

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

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

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

Other early legislative language included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUCKETS, FIRE MARKS, AND FIRE ALARM SYSTEMS

Who will man the buckets?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IT TAKES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAN POWER TO HORSE POWER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EQUIPMENT

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

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

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

LATER APPARATUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFRO-AMERICAN FIREMEN

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

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

CONVENTIONS AND TOURNAMENTS

An organization of black firefighters was formed in 1888 or 1889 [correction: 1890 was the year of organization] called "North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association." The white firefighters had a similar organization formed about the same time. Annual conventions and tournaments were held and large crowds came from long distance to be a part of the celebration. A parade would lead off the event with displays of fire equipment and flashy uniforms. Bands led the groups and the occasion was very festive. Bunting hung from buildings and poles were decorated. The firemen were welcomed by some of the prominent citizens and religious leaders. The speeches indicate the high esteem felt for the firefighters by both black and white. C.B. Green, one of the founders of Durham spoke at the fifth annual convention and tournament of The North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen's Association.. At the end of his speech and a reply by J.H. Johnson, secretary of the Association, cigars were given out to all those in attendance. The Durham Globe gave a glowing account of the good impression the firemen had made on the people of Durham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of these early units had names such as:

  • Athletics
  • Cape Fear
  • Defiance
  • Dibble
  • Neptune
  • Excelsior
  • Enterprise
  • Fulton
         
  • Plummer
  • Red Hot
  • Rough and Ready
  • Swift Foot
  • Sixth Ward
  • Union
  • Victor
  • White Rose
For more colored fire company names, see http://www.legeros.com/history/

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

Early officers of the state organization included:

Later officers included

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